Dr John Weston Smith obituary

Other lives: General practitioner and medical innovator

In 1949 Dr Charles Goodlife invited my father, John Weston Smith, who has died aged 95, to join his GP practice in Tamworth, Staffordshire, as a junior partner, because he admired people with principles who kept to them.

John had been born in Kings Norton, Birmingham, the son of Florence (nee Jackson) and Harold Smith, both Christadelphians, a Christian group who base their beliefs solely on the Bible. At the age of 12 John decided that medicine was to be his career and, encouraged by his own GP, studied at Birmingham University medical school, graduating in 1944. His religious principles caused him difficulties when, after a series of obstetric hospital jobs, he began to apply for GP posts.

His explanation at interviews that he had not entered the armed forces after graduation because he was a Christadelphian and a conscientious objector was met with a stony silence and a nod to the door, until he met Goodlife.

In Tamworth his responsibilities included the GP-managed general hospital, with a casualty department staffed 24 hours a day, and a geriatric hospital, as well as the two-handed GP practice.

In 1960 John prescribed for his wife, Beryl, then pregnant with their sixth child, a new medication for morning sickness known as thalidomide. It was soon established that the drug caused birth defects. Their daughter, Jane, was born later that year, and from then on John’s principal focus was to ensure that she spent her early years living at home and attending local schools, without special treatment beyond that which was necessary.

By the mid 1960s, Charles and John decided that their workload might be eased if they employed a practice nurse, and engaged Mary Mottram. They were in the vanguard of this major change in the way GP services were delivered. The practice published a paper in the BMJ and as a result John and Mary appeared on 24 Hours, a precursor of Newsnight.

The needs of a family of six children were considerable. To supplement his income John became a GP anaesthetist, working at a local psychiatric hospital where staff administered electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). By turns of events arising from a replacement machine and a lack of staff training, there was a period of more than two years when the team used a machine they believed was working – but it was not. However, no consultant reported any change in the responses of patients to their treatment.

This unscientific double-blind experiment was the subject of an article in World Medicine in 1974, written by John under a pseudonym. Subsequent research stimulated in part by this article, which cast doubt on the effectiveness of ECT, established its proper place in the treatment of mental illness. The article is still quoted in medical publications.

John retired from his medical partnership in 1982 and ceased practising about 15 years later. Beryl died in 2002, followed by Jane in 2004. John is survived by five sons, Michael, Paul, Tim, Philip and me, 21 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

Jonathan Smith

The GuardianTramp

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