Tributes paid to 'unique' Sheffield surgeon lauded for military exploits in the Malaysian jungle

A distinguished surgeon and author from Sheffield, who wrote about his military exploits in the Malaysian jungle, has died, aged 98.

Wednesday, 14th August 2019, 12:29 pm
Updated Wednesday, 14th August 2019, 2:04 pm

John Rowling, of Broomhill, served the NHS with distinction for many years as a consultant general surgeon in the city, working at the Royal Hospital and later the Royal Hallamshire, before going into private practice after retiring from the health service in 1986.

He devoted his later years to writing on religious, philosophical and medical subjects, and chronicling his fascinating life story, including his National Service which he spent with the Army in the jungles of what is today Malaysia.

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John Rowling behind the wheel of his Rover 25 in 2013

He was there from 1948-50, during the Malayan Emergency, which broke out after three rubber planters were murdered by guerrilla fighters seeking liberation from British rule.

His books recount the challenges of operations to remove everything from bullets to appendices in the middle of the jungle, along with his many adventures which included becoming involved in ambushes and stopping Communist terrorists from blowing up trains.

His heroics saw him mentioned in despatches and promoted to the rank of major, but his reputation for insubordination meant he often rubbed his senior officers up the wrong way.

“I came to be poorly regarded by the Army, who considered me to be intransigent, perverse, obdurate, refractory, insubordinate and recalcitrant, possibly with slight reason…. in the nature of things, the Army had no use for

individualists and I had no plans to become a conformist,” he wrote.

Born in Leeds in 1921, John was the youngest of three siblings from a deeply Christian family whose medical connections dated back to Elizabethan times.

He continued the family tradition by completing a masters in natural sciences at Cambridge University before undergoing his medical training at Leeds General Infirmary, where he qualified in 1945.

John married his Irish sweetheart Elizabeth Roberts, who was a midwifery sister at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, in 1949.

They tied the knot in Penang and spent their honeymoon travelling down to Singapore, with John describing how money was so tight all he could offer by way of a wedding present was a Webley revolver and a pep talk.

On his return to England, he served as a registrar in Liverpool and senior registrar in Aberdeen and Leicester before settling in Sheffield.

His eccentricity and wry sense of humour were illustrated by the name of his home where he practised after going private, with few patients probably realising Thanatos House took its moniker from the personification of death in Greek mythology.

John lovingly nursed Elizabeth for many years after she developed dementia, and, following her death in 2005, devoted his remaining years to writing.

His wide-ranging interests included flying, sailing and motor racing, and he was still revving up his motorbike well into his 80s. John, who did not have any children, was also a talented model engineer and retained a love of learning, taking up classical languages in his 70s.

The devout Christian, who attended Sheffield Cathedral, supported numerous good causes, including the Cathedral Archer Project which helps homeless people, and many animal charities.

Michael Clarke, a close friend, said: “John was a good friend with a tremendous variety of interests, and a very generous man who lived very humbly.”

John’s goddaughter, Liz Armour, said: “He was an incredible person who seemed to be able to do anything he turned his hand to, from riding motorbikes and doing metalwork to quoting Greek and Latin. He was probably the most erudite person I’ve ever met.

“He was unique and incredibly kind and loving, with a great sense of humour, and he never wanted to be any trouble to anybody. It was a pleasure to be in his company and an honour to have him as my godfather.”

John died on July 27, and his funeral took place at Sheffield Cathedral last Tuesday, August 6.