Professor Michael Gleeson’s Introduction

Mr Presidents, Ladies and Gentlemen. It is my great pleasure and privilege to welcome John Watkinson’s family and guests here today. It is a very proud moment for them, as John is the 94th clinician to be awarded the Semon Lecture by the University of London.

Sir Felix Semon announced his intended retirement in January 1909. His resignation was immediately refused by one person, His Majesty King Edward VII. The profession expressed their disappointment and with the help of Society names established a fund to give him a testimonial that would recognise his contribution to the practice of Laryngology. The fund grew quickly and became quite substantial. Sir Felix approached the University of London to manage it in perpetuity, and to establish a lectureship in his name. The terms of reference were agreed, and the management structure of the lecture was defined and enshrined in law by the University’s lawyers. That structure remains to this day very much as it was then over 100 years ago.

The Semon Lecture is awarded annually to someone of international repute, on who has contributed substantially to the knowledge and practice of our specialty. The University of London is very proud to administer this lectureship as it has always been regarded as the “Blue Ribband” of our specialty, both nationally and internationally. No other lectureship in the world of our specialty carries such prestige.

“The Blue Ribband” was originally an accolade for an entirely different type of achievement. It was bestowed on the passenger ship that held the fastest record for a transatlantic crossing from east to west, from the UK to New York. The Semon Lecturer today certainly fulfills London University’s criteria as he has an international reputation that very few in the UK can equal, let alone exceed. But in his case the term “Blue Ribband” is also appropriate as he travels far and wide, east to west, north to south, and all by invitation; not just by ENT surgeons but also endocrinologists, radiation oncologists, general surgeons and molecular scientists. Just in the last month he has lectured by invitation in London, Birmingham, Seoul, Tokyo and Barcelona. 

John is someone that I place in a very select category called “producers”. As an editor myself, whenever let down by authors for my editions of Scott-Brown or the Head and Neck Section of Gray’s Anatomy, I immediately turned to John Watkinson in the knowledge that he would do the job, do it well and do it on time. I might have had to be his scribe on occasions, but that was always very enjoyable and usually undertaken over a glass or two of fine wine. He never let me down. All of you here have, or should have, one of the books he has edited or contributed to on your personal bookshelves. Most likely, it will be Stell and Maran’s Head and Neck Surgery, or one of the recent editions of Scott-Brown. Put another way, John has contributed to everyone’s professional education. He has published nearly 100 papers, written or edited 6 books. I must admit that I gave up trying to count the number of national and international presentations he has delivered all around the world. His international recognition is reflected by the number of eponymous lectures he has been given to deliver globally, east, west, north and south. Most but not all are listed on his biography that you have received with your papers today.

John’s Semon Lecture is on Sir Felix’s contribution to thyroid surgery. But what of John’s own contribution to thyroid surgery? His Huntarian Professorship awarded in 2009 was based on the outcomes of his first 1,500 thyroidectomies of which just under 500 were for patients with malignant disease. There was a minimum of 5 years follow up on all his patients. By any standard a massive personal series and collected in just the first 13 years of his consultant career. His experience now amounts to over 1,000 patients with thyroid cancers alone for which he has complete records. It is hardly surprising that he has held the office of President of the British Association of Endocrine and Thyroid Surgeons – the first ENT surgeon to be honored in that way. John was also appointed to and served on the Administration of Radioactive Substances Advisory Committee and has acted as a Specialist Advisor on Interventional Procedure Programmes for the National Institute for Clinical Excellence. He certainly knows how to manage thyroid disease but also has that vital extra sense that comes with experience – the sense of what will work and what will not in patients with advanced thyroid disease.

I don’t want to deprive you of John’s time on this podium any longer, and I am equally sure that you don’t either. It would take an hour or possibly longer to give an account of all his awards and honours. I have had to be very selective and I apologise for that especially to his wife – Esme, children – Helen and William, and of course his mother and father, without whose continuous support he could never have achieved this. John, many congratulations, the podium is yours.