Catholic Medical Quarterly

The Journal of the Catholic Medical Association (UK)

Building knowledge. Building faith. Protecting the vulnerable.

Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 63(4) November 2013

Great Medical Lives

Mr John Kelly, FRCOG, OBE HonMD

Photo of John KellyWe report with great sadness the death of Mr John Kelly in July this year. He was a great and inspiring leader who served the CMA and its members and so many others.
Working as a consultant and running Obs and Gynae services in Birmingham he was a stalwart defender of the faith, never aborting and also never contracepting. His work with Anna Flynn put real science behind Natural Family Planning and he ran many courses and enabled many couples (myself and Josephine included) to learn the science of reliable and excellent NFP. His wonderful wife died when she was but young leaving his four children whom he so loved. And retiring after a fine career in the NHS he worked in the most deprived parts of the world, repairing vesico-vaginal fistulae and rehabilitating women to their families and their societies. John was a shining example of heroic goodness and charity, humbly delivered by a truly great man. He was passionate too. On one occasion when a contraceptive sales rep tried to denigrate his colleague Anna Flynn by asking questions about her religious background, he grabbed the microphone and insisted that the question be withdrawn. Discussion would be based upon scientific fact and not degraded by predjudice. For our part we pray that Heaven has gained a very great friend and advocate of women, marriage and the family. May he rest in peace.
We publish here an oration given at a degree congregation on Thursday, 19 July 2007 by Professor Robert Arnott, Public Orator, on the occasion of the award of a Doctor of Medicine honoris causa. His deep faith drove a most extraordinary life and huge achievements.


In 1996, Dr John Kelly retired from his NHS practice as a Consultant Obstetrician and Gynaecologist with a growing international reputation for his work in maternal mortality and morbidity and made a decision that for as long as he could, he would devote the rest of his life, without reward, to helping to restore the human dignity of thousands of women through the highly unglamorous treatment and prevention of obstetric fistulae, a condition caused by untreated obstructed labour, which renders women incontinent, mostly of urine and as a consequence, they become social outcasts, within their own communities. This he now does to world-wide acclaim and is comforted by the gratitude of thousands, who without their treatment would have lived shattered lives.

The physician and writer, Dr Richard Asher, suggested that: “Gynaecologists are very smooth indeed. Because they have to listen to woeful and sordid symptoms, they develop an expression of refinement and sympathy.”  To this I would add the words “dedication”, “selflessness” and “courage.”

Born and brought up on the west side of Glasgow, attending St Mungo’s Academy, it was natural then, as it is today, for many a Glasgow boy to go to the local university and wanting to be a doctor from an early age, went to its ancient and distinguished Medical School, qualifying in 1956. The usual house jobs followed, in Glasgow at the Royal Infirmary and then as Registrar and Senior Registrar to the London Hospital in Whitechapel, where he learned his trade of obstetrics and gynaecology. He still recalls with much reverence, the District Midwife “Auntie Gladys” who would marshal, instruct and terrify the juniors whilst they did their rounds, some still on their bicycles.

After a period with the MRC Neonatal Physiology Unit, it was then to Birmingham on appointment as a Consultant, specialising in foetal monitoring, where he was one of the first to occupy the new building now known to us as the Birmingham Women’s Hospital located nearby. His Fellowship of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists now came, to add to that of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, gained some time earlier by examination.

 John Kelly first observed the devastating and preventable condition of obstetric fistulae in the year 1967, at a time spent working in Nigeria, during their Civil War, whilst still a Registrar. It helped change his life. He was also way ahead of his time, since in those days, when he was training, most obstetricians and gynaecologists in practice in the United Kingdom, unlike now, were guilty of paying little attention to problems of women’s health in the developing world.

In 1969 he worked as a voluntary locum in the Fistula Repair Hospital in pre war-torn Ethiopia and has continued to do each year since, sometimes under terrible conditions, also establishing a charity to fund the hospital and its work. Over the years and particularly since retirement from the NHS in 1996, he has established treatment programmes in thirteen countries in Africa and South Asia. He now spends seven to nine months each year on this work, without pay, operating on women in the poorest of the world’s communities and giving them hope.

That not being enough, he both encourages and undertakes the academic study of this work and has his name on a huge number of papers. He advises the World Health Organisation and is a much in demand speaker. Recognising the preventable nature of obstetric fistula, John Kelly is constantly involved in a series of initiatives to improve access to maternity services to women in poor rural communities and started the innovative programme of expert training of assistants in emergency obstetric care.

For this service to women, impoverished and outcast women throughout the world, he was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2005. Although a quiet, modest and soft-spoken Scotsman, he is a giant in the world of medicine and is an inspiration to all of this morning’s graduands taking their first proud steps today in their careers in medicine.

For those few months that he can be found in his Edgbaston home, he also spends in our Department of Public Health, helping, again unpaid, with those researching in the field of maternity provision in the third world and working with medical students intercalating in Medicine in Society to find their overseas placements. He has also found time to be President of the National Association for Natural Family Planning Teachers.

Outside the world of medicine, John Kelly has seen his share of personal tragedy, losing his wife in 1995, but a loving family of four children and two grandchildren and his sister are there to support and encourage him, as does his strong Catholic faith, although he can recall those times when his patients have prayed to Allah to help him in his work. He remembers that he once flirted with golf, but I am reliably informed that he can still be seen, at the age of 76, playing football with the youngsters that live around one of his hospitals in Tanzania. I secretly know that he wears a Celtic shirt!

The most inspired physician of the early twentieth century, Sir William Osler once said that the mission of the medical profession is: “To prevent disease, to relieve suffering and to heal the sick – that is our work.” John Kelly has proudly lived up to this ideal before and after so-called retirement and for this we honour him today and remember with pride that he was and is a Birmingham doctor.

Chancellor, I have the honour to present to you Dr John Kelly OBE, the internationally distinguished obstetrician and gynaecologist, who is deemed most worthy of being awarded the degree of Doctor of Medicine honoris causa.

Oration by Professor Robert Arnott 19th July 2007

Picture coutesy  of Mairead Kelly