John Beavis – Trauma surgeon and humanitarian extraordinaire

John Patrick Beavis

Primary Trauma Care is very sad to have lost one of its great friends and supporters, who played an integral part in much of our activity in a number of countries.

John Beavis first became involved in PTC when he and Sir Terence English approached us to introduce the course in Peshawar, in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province, and it was largely down to John’s considerable support that PTC got off to such a successful start in Pakistan. It later spread to Karachi and throughout the country and into other areas, and subsequently he was instrumental in PTC’s introduction in Gaza and the West Bank. He was an amusing and effective instructor, but also had amazing gifts in communication and making other people enthusiastic, whether this was in discussions with high-ranking officials in Pakistan or exchanging “cheers” and high fives with the guards as we entered Gaza.

John was born in Brighton in June 1940 to unmarried parents and grew up in a large, loving Scots-Irish family. A bright boy, he took degrees at University College London in biochemistry, followed by medicine, qualifying in 1967. He credited his success to the postwar Labour government, saying to The Guardian: “A society that gives to you makes you want to give back” Of his volunteering in Gaza, he said: “This is old-fashioned socialism: people caring for one another.”

After a career in the Royal Marines as a medical officer John worked as a Trauma and Orthopaedic surgeon in the British National Health Service. He retired at the age of 53 following a heart attack and a subsequent coronary bypass operation, but following this he answered an appeal requesting British surgeons to volunteer for hospitals in Bosnia, then engulfed in civil war. During the siege of Sarajevo, John’s engaging chuckle might be heard ringing out through the city’s hospitals as he taught orthopaedic surgeons the best techniques for treating bomb-shattered limbs, and fractures.

Twelve months later, a chance encounter with the businessman Simon Oliver led to John founding the charity IDEALS (International Disaster and Emergency Aid with Long Term Support (ideals.org.uk). Impressed by John’s reports of bringing vital help, training manuals and basic medical equipment to Bosnia, Oliver, then the chairman of Dairy Crest Group plc, gave John the money to start a charity. Since then, John, as founding chairman, co ordinated teams of volunteer British doctors, bringing medical supplies, PTC and other training to troubled areas, of the world

John was appointed Hunterian professor of the Royal College of Surgeons in 2003, and his chosen subject was the management of war injuries.

A deeply humane man, John did not restrict charitable help to medical projects alone. In 2004, Ideals went to Sri Lanka to help villagers whose livelihood and homes had been devastated by the tsunami. The charity, under John’s aegis, helped to repair fishing boats and part of a damaged village school. A year later he was in northwest Pakistan, coordinating the flow of medical supplies, tents and foods for a village ravaged by an earthquake. Bedad village was subsequently transferred to new land purchased by IDEALS 50 miles from the original site. There, with help from some of the 200 villagers, it was rebuilt.

For the past decade, John’s main focus was Gaza, which he visited more than 30 times. It was through his facilitation that PTC’s links with Medical Aid for Palestinians developed. Often John was to be found in Al-Shifa, Gaza’s largest hospital, supervising orthopaedic surgeons as they handled complex operations, including open fractures and bullet wounds to the head and chest. A modest man, he was full of praise for the doctors of Gaza, saying they were “brilliant”. Although frequently facing blood-curdling injuries, he was constantly upbeat.

Deeply humane, full of sympathy, John knew the value of a well-timed joke and was a renowned mimic. He could adopt with ease varying accents, ranging from Afrikaans to Irish or Geordie. Once, in Gaza, in the presence of high-ranking officials, John pretended with glee to be a butler named “Beeves” for his fellow IDEALS trustee, Terence English.

A non-smoker, John died from lung cancer on December 5. In the New Year Honours he was appointed OBE for services to victims of war and disaster. However, this was but one of John’s many awards which included the Bosnian Medal of Honour and in 2013 he was runner-up in the 2013 Times Active Life Sternberg Award.

On receiving the Hugh O’Flaherty International Humanitarian Award in 2016,John remarked: “I am a very reluctant recipient as I am convinced that I have done nothing out of the ordinary.”