The hip history of a British Surgeon – Sir John Charnley

British orthopaedic surgeon Professor Sir John Charnley (1911-1982) pioneered the hip replacement operation, a significant landmark for 20th Century surgery. It is now considered one of the most common elective surgeries in the world.

In 1929 Charnley started medical school at the Victoria University of Manchester. Whilst there he obtained a BSc in Anatomy and Physiology, and earned himself a number of prizes. 1 year later, aged 25, he became a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, England. That’s the youngest age deemed acceptable to the college. In the years to follow he held residency in Salford Royal Hospital, King’s College London and Manchester Royal Infirmary.

In May 1940 Charnley volunteered for army service, entering the Royal Army Medical Corps as a Lieutenant, then promoted to Major. After serving in Dunkirk and running an orthopaedic hospital in Cairo during the Second World, he returned to Manchester.

Charnley replaced Sir Harry Platt as Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon at Manchester Royal Infirmary in 1947. The post required that Charnley be Consultant at Wrightington for one day a month. Until that time, Wrightington had been a specialist hospital treating tuberculosis (TB) since the early 1930s. In 1958 Charnley decided to put his efforts into the development of hip replacement research and surgery, and in 1962 he moved his clinical practice to Wrightington Hospital. Charnley never gave up during his development and finally, in November 1962, his hip replacement became practical reality. Which is now considered the gold standard for this form of treatment.

Sir John was dedicated to seeing how each hip had performed so kept a close eye on each patient. After their death he would send a team member, from what they affectionately called ‘The black box squad’, to retrieve the hip and lymph nodes. This was to see how it had performed during the time it had been in the body and also to see how the cement had worked. Mr Faux, a Colleague and Orthopaedic Surgeon, told the BBC that Charnley wrote to all his patients asking if he could have the hips back after they died. “Ninety-nine per cent of them were so pleased with the hip they said ‘of course’.

Professor Sir John Charnley’s enthusiasm and dedication remained unchanged throughout his life. He never really retired so his life and his work ended together.


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