John Scott

Published: 18 Jun 2019

Time spent at school: 1947 - 1954

Date passed away: January 10th 2013

John Scott, who has died aged 76, was a pioneering ophthalmic surgeon responsible for developing new techniques in the surgical repair of retinal detachment – a condition which can lead to blindness.Until Scott’s work, up to 50 per cent of treatment for retinal detachment (often a consequence of retinal tears) was unsuccessful. This was largely because existing techniques treated the condition by external approaches, whereas Scott sought to remedy cases from the inside of the eye, notably by replacing the eye’s vitreous – or gel – with a silicone oil substitute, which acted like a permanent splint holding the retina in place.This advance allowed a host of patients whose conditions had previously been considered untreatable to regain part or all of their vision. The use of silicone oil had first been introduced by Paul Cibis, a German-born ophthalmologist and surgeon based in St Louis, America. Cibis died prematurely, having operated on only a few patients, but Scott visited St Louis shortly afterwards and examined these cases. He was so impressed with the potential of the novel treatment that he brought Cibis’s entire stock of silicone oil back with him to Cambridge. There he confronted the problem of “giant retinal tears” in patients with Stickler syndrome – a hereditary disorder of connective tissue, affecting the joints, hearing and inner eye. It was a particularly daunting disease for ophthalmologists at that time, as retinas with such large tears tended to collapse under the influence of gravity and lie in a heap at the back of the eye. Patients with the condition were effectively written off as inoperable. Scott devised an approach to repair giant tears by strapping his anaesthetised patients to an operating table attached to a specially modified milling machine that he had ordered from Mackay’s Ironmongers on East Road in Cambridge. The table could be fully rotated so that the patient was face down towards the floor. Scott, fully scrubbed, gowned and gloved, would then slide himself on a mechanic’s trolley beneath the suspended patient – using gravity to assist the unfolding of the collapsed retina.

John David Scott was born on June 4 1936 to Joseph and Olive Scott in Godalming, Surrey, and educated at Godalming Grammar School. He trained at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, where he supported himself financially by volunteering for clinical experiments and helping in a workshop mixing glues and repairing violins.

After graduation Scott landed a surgical post at Farnborough, where he developed his interest in

ophthalmology. He continued his training at the Western Eye Hospital, where he took a particular interest in retinal detachment surgery, and at Moorfields Eye Hospital, both in London. He was appointed consultant at Addenbrookes in 1967, at the age of 31.

A condition of Scott’s appointment was that he spent a period observing retinal services overseas, and it was thus that he came to be in St Louis, examining patients operated on by Cibis.

Soon after his return to Cambridge, the Royal Commonwealth Society for the Blind offered Scott the opportunity to work in Enugu in south-eastern Nigeria, caring for victims of the Biafran War. While there Scott developed viral encephalitis, happily self-medicating with locally brewed “Star” beer. When he was well enough he would be carried to his clinics on a chair. He was made an honorary chief by the community he served, and would occasionally, back in Britain many years later, introduce himself by his tribal title to patients arriving from Africa.

In Cambridge, Scott quickly established an excellent reputation for managing all aspects of retinal disease and within two years had performed the first “open skies” vitrectomy – a new operation to treat the blinding late complications of diabetes. His expertise in the management of retinal detachment repair saw him sought out by patients from all over the world.

In the early 1990s Addenbrookes hosted the live television event Hospital Watch. Presented by Sue Lawley, Maggie Philbin and Tony Robinson, the programme ran for a week and shadowed a selected member of nursing, portering, administrative or medical staff for each day of filming. Scott was chosen to represent the medical staff, and the day’s progress was aired in three broadcasts, following Scott’s patients from hospital ward to operating table, and then to post-operative recovery.

Away from the operating theatre, Scott repaired and built clocks. His dexterity also allowed him to design and modify many surgical instruments. He travelled and lectured widely and won many national and international awards, notably becoming the first British surgeon to win the Hermann Wacker prize from the Club Jules Gonin – the international society for retinal surgeons.

John Scott loved sailing boats, aeroplanes and cars. In his youth he crewed for an old doctor in what he described as “a filthy old boat which had been banned from several ports”; he later kept his own craft at Southampton. A keen pilot, he was a member of the Black Mountains Gliding Club, and carried on flying until his arthritis forced him to give up. A classic car fan, he owned at various times Rolls-Royces, Aston Martins, an Alvis, the “White” Riley and a Bentley.

He also played violin and viola throughout his life, latterly with the Abergavenny Symphony Orchestra.

In 1998 he published Surgery for Retinal and Vitreous Disease.

John Scott was twice married. With his first wife, Betty, he had a son. With his second wife, Diana, he had a son and a daughter. All survive him, as does Jan, the partner of his final years.

John Scott, born June 4 1936, died January 10 2013