Professor Sir John Temple, Kt

Doctor of Science Professor Sir John Temple

Tuesday 15 July 2014 at 11.15 am - Orator: Professor Steve Thomas

Madam Chancellor,

Looking around the Great Hall this morning I can see the seriousness with which today’s medical graduates have undertaken the Promise. It is a promise with the enormous gravity, unique to the medical profession, to maintain the utmost respect for human life.

I asked today’s honorary graduand what advice he would give all of you, having made this promise. He showed what I have found to be typical of him – a sense of humility – he advised ‘you won’t always be right, so never be afraid to ask for advice’.

Sir John Temple is a great doctor and a leader in medicine who has steered us through more than a decade of reform in education and training. He has had a distinguished surgical career, was President of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and his achievements were recognised with the award of Knight Bachelor in the Queen’s Birthday honours in 2003 for services to medicine and medical education.

So, you may wonder how, having just graduated, you could contemplate such an illustrious career?

Well, it is seldom a straight course; it is a matter of taking opportunities as they arise. Sir John was educated at William Hulme’s Grammar School in Manchester, from there he had planned to join the Navy, but he was rejected because he was short sighted. Although disappointed not to have a career in the Navy this has not stopped his love of sailing.

He changed course and went on to qualify from Liverpool University Medical School with an Honours Degree in 1965. It was there that he met his wife Jill and subsequently her father, also a doctor. They now have 3 children and 9 grandchildren - and I have to mention the dog. Sir John went on to train as a surgeon in Liverpool, before becoming a consultant surgeon first in Manchester and then in Birmingham.

It was at this point that his career extended into areas he had not expected and which proved to be extraordinary and hugely influential. I asked Sir John if, when he was a young doctor, he had anticipated becoming such an influence in the profession. He reflected, that behind every successful man there is a surprised woman, and, in his case, an utterly astonished father-in-law’.

An opportunity arose in 1991 when, unusually for a surgeon, he became the Regional Postgraduate Dean in the West Midlands, the biggest Postgraduate Medical Deanery in the UK – he went on to be Chairman of the Conference of Postgraduate Deans. His leadership qualities were quickly recognised by the Chief Medical Officer, Sir Kenneth Calman, and he was appointed to implement the Higher Specialist Training Reforms and the creation of the new grade of Specialist Registrar. 

These reforms were deeply controversial because there were concerns that they would adversely affect the training for specialist registrars; training time was being reduced and this was compounded by a reduction in working hours. On top of this, the number of registrars was being reduced but the expectation of more formal training by consultants increased. This added to the consultants’ workload when there were no additional resources. The reforms were designed to make Britain's system of postgraduate education compatible with Europe's, the result was much more profound. The emphasis was now on structured teaching and supervised learning and not the old apprenticeship model. As new doctors you will benefit from this transformation.

Next came the introduction of the European Working Time Regulation, which was going to limit doctors to a 48-hour working week.  As training and delivery of patient care are inextricably linked in the NHS both were bound to be affected. The Government requested a review of the impact on training and this culminated in the Temple Report on doctors’ working hours.

Sir John’s belief was that ‘Today’s training is tomorrow’s patient safety’. The old apprenticeship model of training had relied on trainees spending long hours at work delivering service, while they developed their skills and knowledge. I worked as a trainee surgeon before the reforms, at a time when it was thought acceptable to work non-stop from eight o’clock on a Friday morning, through the entire weekend until Monday evening. So personally, I have no doubt that Sir John’s reforms have had a huge impact on patient safety.  In his report he recommended that service delivery must support training and that trainers and trainees must use the learning opportunities in every clinical situation, characteristically summed up by Sir John, ‘to make every moment count’.

More recently in his career, Sir John has taken on many roles through which society has benefited. One of the areas he finds most satisfying is his role as Chairman of the Research Council of the Healing Foundation, a national charity that fundraises and champions the cause of those living with disfigurement or visible loss of function. For a very personal reason, the tragic loss of his infant brother to a scalding injury, he is proud of his part in the development of the Healing Foundation Centre for Children's Burns Research at the University of Bristol. This develops new techniques and approaches to prevent burns and scalds and improve the recovery of children who have suffered such injuries.

On a personal level I admire Sir John – he is self-effacing, humorous, a great family man – he has also had a major influence on the NHS, both as a thoughtful surgeon, and as a senior NHS politician. He is always concerned to achieve the best for patients and his fellow professionals. So, Sir John has been the consummate leader, but how would he think his peers might describe him? Unsurprisingly when he is on board his yacht, he is the Captain. Indeed one of his professional colleagues who crewed for him described him as the Captain Bligh of Birmingham. While this may seem unfair if we have a Hollywood image of Mutiny on the Bounty, in reality, Bligh was a hard man but fair, and critically he was a brilliant navigator. I asked Sir John how he would sum up his leadership style and he said ‘hard but fair’.  I would add that he has also been a brilliant navigator through the reform of our profession.

Madam Chancellor, I present to you John Graham Temple as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Science honoris causa.


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