Obituary: Dr John Sanford Berkeley, GP, medical missionary and mountain rescue pioneer

BORN: 23 October 1927 in East Molesey. Died: 6 March in Auchterarder, aged 88.

Dr John Sanford Berkeley
Dr John Sanford Berkeley

With the death of John Berkeley, Scotland has lost one its most modest and most accomplished of general practitioners of the second half of the 20th century.

Schooled in the south of England, John came to Edinburgh to study medicine, qualifying in 1949 – with a rowing blue as well. He started his career as an orthopaedic houseman at Raigmore in Inverness. He then did his National Service in the RAF at Wig Bay and West Freugh in south west Scotland where he was involved with the foundation of the Scottish Mountain Rescue Service.  Strongly attracted to the hills and to rural life, he moved seamlessly into life as a general practitioner based in Fort William where he worked for the next 13 years.

Having been strongly influenced by hearing Billy Graham speak in Inverness during his 1955 visit to Scotland, John and his wife Muriel had decided to commit themselves to a life of wider service. In 1966, John left general practice to train as a medical missionary at Bible College in Glasgow while Muriel went to train as a public health physician in Edinburgh, forming the basis of what was to become an extraordinary partnership of commitment to a range of diverse communities over the next 40 years.

Their first posting in 1967 was with the Leprosy Mission in south India, where John learned the basics of hand surgery and reconstructive techniques, moving to Bhutan in 1968 to develop a leprosy service there, later becoming superintendent of the main hospital in Thimpu.  John returned to Edinburgh to undertake a formal training in public health, moving to Aberdeen as a senior lecturer in the relatively new department of general practice where he wrote an MD thesis on the importance of cottage hospitals to rural communities, a theme which has proved of enduring importance.

John and Muriel were invited back to Bhutan for a second time when they set up a school for training health workers. On returning to Scotland, John spent time as an administrative officer with Grampian Health Board before becoming medical director of Roxburghe House, the hospice serving the city of Aberdeen and around. Retiring to Coylumbridge in 1990, John became a member of Highland Health Board. After retirement John continued his commitment to developing communities overseas, particularly spending time with Muriel in Yemen helping to develop undergraduate medical training with a focus on community practice.

Alongside his work as a medical practitioner, John was instrumental in developing mountain rescue services, particular in the Lochaber area.  He formed the Lochaber Mountain Rescue committee in 1965, with himself as chairman and Hamish MacInnes as secretary. During his national service John had become aware of the serious consequences of hypothermia in climbing accidents, developing the Berkeley Bag – a cushion-lined plastic envelope in which to house casualties while they were transported to safety.  He later became the first president of the Scottish Mountain Rescue Society. 

And he was district commissioner of the Lochaber Boy Scouts for good measure.

John married Muriel in 1950 having met while house officers in Raigmore hospital in Inverness shortly after qualifying as doctors. 


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Their three children loved their lives of adventure and travel, and John in turn loved his relationships with their growing number of grandchildren.

During his last year of life, John simply became frail, but kept his enduring charm and extraordinary modesty and sense of inward peace through the last months of his long and remarkable life of commitment to others.

His Memorial Service on April 16th was held in Kincraig Church, high above the river Spey, where John, himself an ordained lay preacher, had in retirement so often led Sunday Worship.

John Howie