Nottingham Hospitals Archives 2011
“1911 - 1982”
Kt., C.B.E., M.B., D.Sc., Manc., F.R.C.S., F.A.C.S., F.R.S.
John Charnley was born on 29th August 1911 at Bury, Lancashire, and attended Bury Grammar School before proceeding to Manchester University, where he graduated M.B., Ch.B. in 1935, winning several prizes and scholarships. He was the only Manchester student ever to pass the primary F.R.C.S. examination (old regulations) while reading for the second M.B., and this enabled him to obtain the F.R.C.S., in 1936, just one years after qualifying. A major in the Royal Army Medical Corps (orthopaedic specialist) from 1939 to 1945, on returning to Manchester he became a lecturer in orthopaedics; in 1947 he was appointed consultant orthopaedic surgeon at Manchester Royal Infirmary on the retirement of Sir Harry Platt, who had initially kindled his interest in orthopaedics, and at Park Hospital, Davyhulme.
John Charnley rapidly developed a large practice that reflected his skill as a surgeon and his devotion to hard work. With the conquering of tuberculosis he applied himself to the major problem of the day - degenerative hip disease - suspecting that the difficulty with currently practised hip surgery was one of lubrication. After studying the lubrication of animal joints he tackled the problems in a novel way using Teflon, the material that had the lowest coefficient of friction, the operations being performed initially at the Manchester Royal Infirmary and subsequently at Wrightington Hospital. The initial results were outstandingly successful, and in his usual enthusiastic fashion, he performed 300 replacements over the years before calling a halt to follow up the patients progress.
Unfortunately the early success was not longstanding, but the technology - the bonding of the implants to the skeleton by using methyl methacrylate cement, the surgical techniques of trochanteric detachment, and complex material, high density polyethylene, was evolved; this was used for the first time in 1962. Because of the encouraging results, and his wish to explore fully the possibilities of the new procedure John Charnley resigned from the Manchester Royal Infirmary and spent all his time at Wrightington, developing the centre for hip surgery, which became the foremost unit for total hip replacement in the world, with visiting surgeons travelling from every corner of the world to find out the latest developments. He received numerous honours for his work, from both this country and abroad, culminating in the Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1975 and a Knighthood in 1977. In 1978 he was awarded the Gold Medal of the British Medical Association.
In 1957, having previously been considered a confirmed bachelor, Sir John married Jill. His best work followed as she created a beautiful home and an outstanding garden that gave him a tranquil haven to enable him to work at such a prodigious pace. They lived in style and entertained their many friends from home and abroad with considerable elan. They had two children, Tristam and Hetta.
Sir John’s three outstanding contributions could be said to be the use of high-density polyethylene in total hip replacement, ultra-clean air operating enclosures, and the use of methyl methacrylate cement for the fixation of implants. At the time of his death he was amassing evidence to show the safety of cement in total joint hip replacement for the forthcoming meeting of the British Orthopaedic Association in Manchester. He was working furiously right up until the end. The hunger of the mind that had caused him to make to many fundamental and important contributions would not allow him to sit back and receive the justly deserved admiration of his colleagues. He was a frequent visitor to Wrightington, maintaining his interest in the Biomechanical laboratory, and was revered by all the hospital staff.
Adapted by Paul Swift
from and obituary published in the B.M.J.,