Alexander McCalister

BMJ 2018; 360 doi: (Published 06 March 2018) Cite this as: BMJ 2018;360:k1016
  1. Peter McCalister

Alexander McCalister (“Alex”) was born in Belfast and grew up in rural Northern Ireland in relatively poor surroundings. His first home in Antrim was a dwelling with no electricity nor running water. His mother cooked over an open peat fire, using a cauldron and a griddle—and Alex thought she did a very good job of it. If water was needed someone was sent 300 yards down the road to a spring, and came back with water in a bucket. For washing clothes and themselves, the family collected rainwater.

Alex thought this was an admirable way to grow up—in fact, he would recommend it. His family had suggested he might wish to become a carpenter, but his inspirational head teacher thought he should consider medicine as a career instead—something he did not think he would be able to afford. Fortunately, he won a local government scholarship, which allowed him to study at Queen’s University Belfast, where he lived with an aunt.

After an outstanding career as a student he was awarded MB ChB with 1st class honours in 1948. There were no honours awarded by Queen’s medical school for five years thereafter, a fact that contributed to Alex having a reputation for being “a cut above the rest” for the rest of his life.

While Alex was teaching medical students, he met Claire Johnston. They married in 1955 and had four children. The youngest became a doctor. Sadly, the eldest daughter died two weeks before Alex, in January 2018.

In 1968 Alex was appointed consultant general surgeon at the Ulster Hospital in Belfast and worked there for more than 20 years before retiring in 1989. He specialised in urology, and it was well known that the local urologists would come to him if they needed an operation performed on themselves. Alex was a very good surgeon—very quick, deft, and neat. He put this skill down to having done “a lot of cutting” in the era before MRI scans and keyhole surgery—if patients were ill in front of him with a surgical problem, he proceeded to open them up.

The comic movies of the 1950s—Doctor in the House and Doctor at Large—feature a terrifying consultant surgeon, called Sir Launcelot Spratt. This character would burst into the ward, surrounded by nurses, doctors, and students—and ward rounds were basically an exercise in how to exert his own power.

Such characters existed in medicine in Alex’s time, but he was completely different. His nickname on the wards was “the Uncle,” and ward rounds were quiet and methodical, and held very early in the morning. He surmised that:

  • a) He was awake at 5 am—a country boy;

  • b) The nurses were awake anyway;

  • c) The operating department was open.

All of this meant that he could just start operating at 7.30 in the morning. This was an hour and a half before everyone else. This brought his ward round back to 6.30 am, after which he would have a daily meeting with the theatre sister. Alex had enormous respect for nurses—he used to say, “a good nurse is more important than a good doctor—for the patient.”

Alex joined the Territorial Army as a young doctor and worked his way up to become a colonel in the Royal Army Medical Corps (volunteers), and commanding officer of his own unit, 204 Field Hospital. During this time, he was awarded the Territorial Decoration, became a Knight of St John of Malta, and the Queen’s Honorary Surgeon. This is the uniform he is wearing in the photograph—which did not always have the effect intended. On one occasion at the Queen’s Garden Party he was mistaken for a member of the brass band.

He loved travel, and his breadth of knowledge encompassed poetry, birds, trees, flowers, and history—especially military history. He had a lifelong love of Royal Air Force history and owned the complete works of the Captain W E Johns, pilot in the first world war and author the “Biggles” books.

After Claire’s death in 1985, Alex was lucky enough to find happiness again, marrying Heather Hector in 1989. The wedding took place in Helen’s Bay, County Down, where both families lived for many years. Both Claire’s and Heather’s ashes are buried there, and Alex wished his ashes to be buried here also.

After the death of his second wife in 2013, Alex lived on alone and independently until his final admission a month before he died. He became much liked in his new home in Scotland, being unfailingly polite to all, and dignified even in his last days in hospital. He always wore a shirt and tie, even on days off work, and as an inpatient.

He was keen on keeping up with current events. Every day he bought two newspapers, listened to the news several times on the radio (at full volume), and, in recent years, watched it on TV (also at full volume, sometimes with the radio on simultaneously).

Alex was a natural fiddler—taught by his own father, who was a very skilled player. He did not play from music, instead playing “by ear,” being able to pick up a tune easily. When he asked Claire to his family home in Antrim, it was a bit of a culture shock for her—the family still had no running water in the 1950s—but when he started playing the fiddle with his father, she realised for the first time that she wanted to marry him.

It is not widely known that Alex was a deeply spiritual and religious person. He took his prayer book everywhere he went, and he wrote in it constantly, so that it now forms an interesting document, with favourite prayers and psalms annotated. The prayers and psalms were used at his funeral service in Dumfries in February, and will be the source of texts for a short service to inter his ashes in Helen’s Bay later this year.

Consultant general surgeon Ulster Hospital (b 1925; qualified 1948 Queen’s University Belfast; TD, KStJ, QHS, FRCS), died from cardiac failure on 26 January 2018

View Abstract

Log in

Log in through your institution


* For online subscription