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John P Pryor

BMJ 2009; 338 doi: (Published 26 January 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:b305
  1. Ned Stafford

    Trauma surgeon who worked in inner city America and on Iraqi battlefields

    John Pryor often saw the bloody results of “The War in West Philadelphia,” as he called it in a 2007 article he wrote for The Washington Post (5 Aug 2007, The director of the trauma programme at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and a major in the United States army reserve, described the parallels between combat deaths in Iraq and urban murders in his home city.

    Pryor was killed on Christmas day, aged 42, in Mosul, Iraq, by enemy mortar fire.

    Abu Ghraib

    Pryor, a nationally recognised trauma surgeon, joined the army reserve in October 2004. His first three month tour of duty in Iraq was in 2006 at the 344th combat support hospital in Abu Ghraib. On 6 December he left home for his second tour.

    Richard Pryor, his only sibling and also a doctor, says that he tried to dissuade his brother from joining the army reserve. In a self penned obituary, written before deployment, John Pryor acknowledged that his decision to go back to Iraq was not “supported by those close to him, and it was emotionally challenging to balance his dedication to his duty and hurting those he loved.”

    His brother says, “His decision was tough for us to accept. But it was in his personality, in his blood, to serve, to help others.” He notes that at 17 years of age his brother joined the local volunteer ambulance corps.

    “In joining the ambulance corps, he was an anomaly,” his brother recalls. “His friends weren’t doing it. It wasn’t like he was going to get girls by doing it. I can still remember the beeper going off in the middle of the night, and he would jump out of bed and go to a car accident. And it never ended. Twenty years later he was the one to jump out of bed and go help people.”

    On the morning of 11 September 2001, after hijacked jets slammed into the two World Trade Center towers, Pryor saw the first tower collapse on television from Philadelphia. Within minutes, he was driving alone to New York city to help people at ground zero.

    John Paul Pryor was born in 1966 in Mount Vernon, New York, just north of New York city. At the time his father was a social case worker in Harlem. When Pryor was 8 years old, the family moved to Clifton Park, near Albany.

    In 1984 he enrolled at the University of New York at Binghamton, majoring in biochemistry. He was more interested in partying and having fun than applying himself to his studies. He liked rock ‘n’ roll. Later, as a trauma surgeon, he would jam with friends in his basement on either his Fender Stratocaster or one of his acoustic guitars.

    After college, Pryor worked a year in a biomedical research laboratory at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York city. But he would walk around and see the doctors in white coats and feel envious. He decided that he wanted to study medicine.

    Unfortunately, with his mediocre college transcript, medical schools did not want him. He spent several years getting rejected by medical schools around the United States. Eventually, in August 1990, he enrolled at St George’s University school of medicine on the Caribbean island of Grenada. “St George’s was his launching pad,” Richard Pryor says. “In Grenada, he excelled. He was like a rocket.”

    There he met his future wife, fellow medical student Carmela Calvo, now a paediatrician in Philadelphia. In 1992 he transferred to the University of Buffalo school of medicine and biomedical sciences in New York, where he graduated and did general surgery training.

    Split second decisions

    In 1999, Pryor was recruited by C William Schwab, chief of the division of trauma and surgical critical care at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr Schwab, a US Navy veteran, compared Pryor to military jet pilots with no prestigious military schools on their curriculums vitae but who became outstanding pilots able to make split second life and death decisions under extreme pressure.

    “In the navy, we called those pilots mustangs,” he says. “John Pryor truly was a mustang. He was always a leader. He was respected. He had the ability to take chaos and bring order to it.”

    Knowing how his family felt, John Pryor had asked for a small, non-military funeral. But Richard Pryor says that the army convinced the family that his military service should be honoured. More than 1300 mourners attended the full military funeral in a Philadelphia cathedral.


    Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:b305


    • John Paul Pryor, US combat surgeon in Iraq (b 1966, q 1994 Buffalo) died from enemy mortar fire on 25 December 2008.

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