David Johnson 1942-2008

Dr David Johnson. Photo: Chris Geraghty

David Skeffington Johnson was an inveterate collector and hoarder: of Sepik artefacts, playful tin frogs with umbrellas dancing round his garden fountain, and of Greek statuary and urns.

Then there were the books of every kind, often two and three copies: Latin and Greek dictionaries; Loeb editions of classical Greek authors; a wall, ceiling to floor, of travel guides; and tomes of medical history of classical, medieval and Renaissance times.

He collected wines, especially Jesuit varieties from Seven Hill, where the winemaker emeritus, Brother May, had been his companion and fellow sufferer in a Jesuit training house at Watsonia. And he collected friends, from all walks of life, friends whom he loved and cherished, and with whom he shared the sweet contents of his cellar.

Johnson, who has died at 66, was a general surgeon who practised at Westmead Hospital for many years. The craft was in his blood. His father, Dr Alex Johnson, had been a surgeon, and his mother, formerly Joan Byles, a nurse. His Irish grandfather was a general practitioner. His uncles, Adrian and Bristow, were doctors, as was his cousin Michael, and his wife, Kristin Kerr, a psychiatrist.

The family has served the sick and suffering of Sydney with skill and dedication for at least three generations. Johnson made his mark on perhaps hundreds of Sydneysiders. Surgeons leave their footprints on people's bodies, often in the most private parts and on hidden organs. Old and young, mostly poor, often pensioners, frequently unable to speak English, people anxious and in pain, entrusted themselves to Johnson in the public system, with their hernias, piles, cancers, stab wounds or motor vehicle injuries.

He had been dux of St Ignatius College at Riverview, with excellent marks in Latin and Greek, and runner-up in the Cooper scholarship examination for classics. He maintained a passionate interest in the classics all his adult life. He had been captain of the 2nd XI cricket team and of the 2nd XV rugby team, though his schoolmates thought that, despite his withered polio leg, he should have played in the firsts.

In 1967, in his final year of medical school at the University of Sydney, his fellow students awarded Johnson the Robin May Prize for "outstanding leadership and good fellowship" displayed throughout his medical course. The prize was set up after five graduands drowned when the launch Robin May foundered in 1945. Johnson's fellows at university saw in him the qualities all his friends later came to appreciate: energy, generosity and a fierce intellect.

Apart from his surgery, Johnson was a gifted teacher. The last young doctor who attended him at St Vincent's Hospital before his death was one of the many graduates he had taught in his free time. For some years he organised a summer conference in January, co-opting fellow surgeons, to provide post-graduate training in surgery for young doctors. With the proceeds, he financed budding overseas surgeons, from Papua New Guinea, Uganda, the Congo and Zimbabwe, to attend.

He would arrange their flights, accommodation, contacts with eminent, experienced surgeons, and for their entertainment at his home, among his friends. He sometimes turned up at family Christmas or New Year functions with his proteges in tow, all unannounced.

He loved to entertain, with fine food and wines, good conversation and very loud music which he kept turning up to full blast every time Kristin discreetly tried to soften it.

Johnson was a compulsive traveller: Sardinia, Sicily, Petra, the coast of Turkey to visit Ephesus and the residence of Aristotle at Assos, Cyprus, Egypt, Athens, Corinth and the Roman ruins in Spain. Once, to observe French surgical techniques, he assisted in a surgical theatre in Toulouse. He was always ready to learn.

His later years were tragically affected by a series of minor strokes that resulted in his becoming disengaged from the wonderful rich world he had inhabited. His thinking processes became heavy and creaky and his speech a little slurred.

Johnson was the brother of the Reverend Monsignor Lex Johnson who served as the Dean of St Mary's Cathedral in Sydney before his death. He is survived by his wife, Kristin Kerr, their son Dominic, his brother Paul, sister Sue O'Connor, and brother Peter, a Supreme Court judge.

Chris Geraghty
By permission of the Sydney Morning Herald