Respected pioneer of medical school in HK dies

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 July, 2011, 12:00am


John Vallance-Owen, one of the founding professors of Chinese University's medical school and a world-renowned expert in diabetes, died last Saturday in Britain. He was 90.

Vallance-Owen, founding head of the Department of Medicine and later the school's associate dean, played a major role in leading the first batch of graduates to obtain international accreditation.

Those students remembered him as a gentleman and a teacher who cared deeply.

'He was one of the most respected professors of my class,' said Dr Luk Che-chung, chief executive of the Hospital Authority's Hong Kong West group of hospitals. 'He treated us as his own grandsons and never scolded anyone.'

JVO, as he was known among friends, came to the city in 1983 at the invitation of the late professor Gerald Hugh Choa, founding dean of the medical school. But his academic experience began decades before that.

The Welsh native won a scholarship to study at Cambridge University during the height of the second world war. He established a worldwide reputation after authoring books and theses on cardiology and diabetes. In 1966, he was appointed Professor of Medicine at Queen's University Belfast, where he would serve for the next 17 years.

Medical-sector legislator Dr Leung Ka-lau, also among the first batch of graduates, recalled that when Vallance-Owen came to Hong Kong at the age of 63, he was already half-retired and had suffered a minor stroke.

'He had problems moving the two sides of his body simultaneously, but that did not affect his clinical care,' Leung said.

Luk had a similar view. 'He made a diagnosis after hearing a patient's heartbeat for merely two seconds. All of us were unable to pick up anything from the stethoscope, but further tests proved his diagnosis correct. I was amazed.'

Luk said Vallance-Owen, being world famous, helped the school build up its reputation quickly.

Dr John Mackay, who wrote a profile of Vallance-Owen in 2008 for a newsletter, said the professor contributed significantly to building the school's first team of teachers. With many locals unwilling to travel to Sha Tin for work, he hired from Australia, the US and Britain, Mackay said.

Luk said that by his third year of study, the medicine course had not yet obtained accreditation. The class almost had to terminate because construction of the teaching hospital, Prince of Wales, was behind schedule. But Vallance-Owen and other professors convinced United Christian Hospital to take them in. Lessons took place in a rented container, where students on overnight duty also slept.

'It was a difficult time. But JVO told us, 'No worries, boys, I will take care [of this]',' Luk said.

At the final examination, Leung said, Vallance-Owen provided assurance. 'He told us that we were up to international standard and there was nothing to be afraid of.'

The professor left the city in 1988, as the medical school took its place among the region's top schools. The class of 1986 went on to become leaders in the field. Other than Luk and Leung, it included North District Hospital chief Dr Man Chi-yin and diabetes specialist Dr Lo Kwok-wing.

Vallance-Owen went into full retirement in 2004 and lived near Cambridge. Besides his interest in medicine, he was a capable sportsman, an avid musician and a chess player.

He is survived by two sons and two daughters. His eldest son Andrew told Mackay in 2008: 'Dad was committed to his research but he was really in his element when he was teaching in a clinical environment; this is why he so enjoyed his time in Hong Kong. He loved the enthusiasm of the students and young doctors.'