Member Spotlight: John Yeo

May 5th, 2019

John Yeo

Professor John Yeo received his MBBS degree from the University of Sydney in 1956.  He then trained as a resident medical officer at the Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney, which included training in general and neurological surgery.  At this time, he was introduced to the challenges facing persons with spinal injuries and diseases.  This was followed by further residency training at the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children in Sydney.  He then travelled as a ship’s surgeon to England and continued his studies and training at the Royal College of Surgeons in London before taking a position as a Surgical Registrar in Southlands Hospital in West Sussex, England.  In 1960, he travelled to Saskatchewan, Canada where he practiced general medicine and surgery.  In 1961, he returned to Australia, where he continued general medical practice in Pambula, New South Wales.

A new challenge was introduced when the Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney planned to develop a specialized unit for the treatment of persons paralyzed from injury.  In 1964, he returned to the Royal North Shore Hospital as a Senior Registrar in paraplegia.  With limited local expertise in spinal cord injury (SCI) medicine and rehabilitation available at the time, he realized that there was a pressing need to expand his knowledge from around the world.  In 1967, he was awarded a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship to study advanced treatment of SCI all over the world.  Over a period of four months, he toured hospitals and facilities in the USA, Canada, the United Kingdom, Europe, Israel and India.  He made many lifelong contacts and friends during this study tour, aiding in his search for further knowledge throughout the course of his career.

After returning to Australia, in 1968, he received an appointment as Medical Director and Head of the Spinal Unit at the Royal North Shore Hospital, a position he held until 1995.  In this capacity, he treated patients at all stages post-injury, including working with patients to assist their lives in the community in practical ways.  He worked with a highly skilled team that included other physician colleagues, nurses, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, social workers, biomedical engineers, splint makers and hospital chaplains, as well as with members of various volunteer organizations.  During his tenure, the Spinal Unit grew from a small 11 bed unit to a major, modern unit, especially after the development of a new building at the hospital in 1978.

Throughout his career, Professor Yeo was involved in research to better understand the science of recovery after SCI, as well as research related to the rehabilitation of persons with SCI.  He published extensively.  In 1976, he founded the Spinal Research Foundation to further support research efforts in the field of SCI medicine.  In 1978, he received a Master of Surgery degree from the University of Sydney, with commendation, for his work on experimental SCI and the study of human pathology following SCI.  He helped develop devices such as the Russell Extraction Device used in the extrication of persons with suspected spinal injuries, particularly after motor vehicle accidents, as well as sacral nerve stimulators used to assist in the emptying of the neurogenic bladder.  He worked with biomedical engineers on durable medical equipment suitable for use by persons with disability living in the Outback and in the Pacific islands.

Besides clinical care and research, Professor Yeo was extensively involved in education.  During his career, he trained many medical students, university students, and others in the allied health professions.  He traveled extensively around the world to advise in the treatment of persons with SCI.  He was also considerably involved in the promotion of SCI prevention in the community, particularly in schools and in sport.  He played an integral role in a campaign that led to rules changes in Australian Rugby Union to mitigate risk of spinal injuries.

Professor Yeo has received extensive national and international recognition for his work.  In 1982, he was awarded as an Officer of the Order of Australia for Services in Medicine.  For his outstanding service and contributions to the field of SCI medicine, in 2000, Professor Yeo was recognized with a Society Medal from the International Spinal Cord Society, its highest honor.

Professor Yeo continued his clinical work in various capacities until early 2019, when he fully retired from clinical practice.


 How did you become interested in becoming a physician?

I became interested in medicine in my final years of schooling.  I was fortunate to receive a scholarship which allowed me to enter the Faculty of Medicine at The University of Sydney from which I graduated in 1956.


How did you become interested in the treatment of spinal and spinal cord injuries?

 I became interested in the treatment of patients with spinal injuries in 1957 as a Senior Resident.  My postgraduate training included general practice, neurosurgery and orthopaedic surgery and I undertook 4 years of training in the field of spinal cord injury.


 Tell us about some of your experiences during your studies and travel under the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship.

 I was appointed to the staff of the Spinal Unit at Royal North Shore Hospital, Sydney in 1964. I was awarded a Winston Churchill Fellowship in 1967 and visited 46 hospitals and rehabilitation units treating spinal injured patients around the world.

The hospitals in North America included the V.A. Hospital in Long Beach, California (Drs. E. Bors and E. Comarr), Rancho Los Amigos in Downey (Dr. Vernon Nickel), Indiana University Medical Centre (Dr. L. Freeman), V.A. Hospital in West Roxbury, Massachusetts (Dr. H.S. Talbot), New York University Medical Center (Dr. Howard A. Rusk), G.F. Strong Rehabilitation Centre, Vancouver (Dr. A.C. [Sandy] Pinkerton), The Canadian Paraplegic Association in Vancouver (Mr. Doug Mowat), Manitoba Rehabilitation Hospital, Winnipeg (Dr. Grogono), Lyndhurst Lodge Hospital, Toronto (Dr. A.T. Jousse) and the Rehabilitation Hospital of Montreal (Dr. G. Jingras).  Since 1967 I have had many visits to my colleagues in both the USA and Canada. 

In the United Kingdom the Fellowship allowed me to visit an additional 12 hospitals, including Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Aylesbury (Sir Ludwig Guttmann and Dr. J.J. Walsh), the Midlands Spinal Injury Unit at Oswestry (Dr. T. McSweeney), Lodge Moor Hospital in Sheffield (Dr. A.G. Hardy), Royal Infirmary Hospital at Sheffield (Department of Neuropathology, Dr. L. Wolman), and the Radcliff Infirmary, Oxford (Professor Trevor Hughes).  In Scotland, my visits included the Department of Surgical Neurology Western General Hospital, Edinburgh (Dr. Phillip Harris) and in Ireland, Lady of Lourdes Hospital, Dublin (Dr. T. Gregg).

In Europe, 10 specialised hospitals and units were visited, including the 500 bed unit at Konstancin, Warsaw (Prof. M. Weiss), Centre De Traumatologie et de Readaptation Hospital Universitaire Brugmann, Bruxelles (Dr. A. Tricot), “de Hoogstraat” Revalidatie Centrum, Leersum, Netherlands (Dr. A. Verkuyl), Bergmannsheil Hospital, Bochum, Germany (Dr. Fred Meinecke) and the Spinal Injuries Unit, Orthopadische Anstaff, Heidelberg (Dr. V. Paeslack).  In France, my visits included the Centre De Reeducation Motrice, Fontainebleau (Dr. Maury) and Centre de Readaptation, Mulhouse (Dr. P. Dollfus).  In Switzerland, I visited 2 well-recognised spinal units, the Swiss Paraplegic Centre, Basel (Dr. L. Michaelis) and the Centre De Paraplegiques, Hopital Cantonal, Geneva (Dr. Alain Rossier).  Before leaving Europe, I visited Centro Paraplegici, I.N.A.I.L., Ostia, Italy (Prof. A. Maglio).

In Israel, my visit included the Hadassah Medical School, Jerusalem (Dr. A. Magora).

En route back to Australia, I had a memorable visit to the Christian Medical College in South India where there was a 20 bed rehabilitation ward for patients with SCI, who were also offered retraining facilities and accommodation.  Dr. Mary Verghese, herself paraplegic from a motor vehicle accident, was not only a skilled surgeon but a committed rehabilitationist.

The Fellowship also gave me the opportunity of studying in detail the treatment and long-term rehabilitation of patients in Australia at the Paraplegic Unit, Royal Perth Rehabilitation Hospital (Sir George Bedbrook, OBE) and the Spinal Injuries Unit in Heidelberg, Victoria (Dr. D. Cheshire).

These 4 months of study overseas were of enormous benefit in increasing my knowledge of a) early recognition of SCI patients and transfer to recognised units; b) the need for increased research to identify the specific pathological changes which occur in the injured spinal cord; and c) the need for development of appropriate surgical treatment and subsequent equipment for rehabilitation.  I came to appreciate that the involvement of staff in facilitating the return of the paralysed patient to the home and community, with the likelihood of employment, is of fundamental importance.  Advances in technology, including in the design of equipment, must continue.  Basic and applied research has to be pursued, with close working relationships between clinicians, surgeons, nurses and all rehabilitation team members.  I believe that these links can be strongly maintained through our membership in ISCoS.


Are there any patients or clinical encounters over the years that you will never forget?  Please describe.

Functional return of the injured neurones within the spinal cord can be identified, but this outcome, sadly, is not our common experience.  We are involved in sharing the journey of seriously disabled patients, so we all have patients with whom we have had special clinical encounters over the years.  

One patient, John, suffered a serious contusion injury to the spinal cord at the T10 level 30 years ago.  He was stabilised with surgery and discharged with an ability to stand for short periods in callipers but was using a wheelchair for functional mobility.  Five years ago, further recovery occurred in both lower limbs so that he is now walking with a single calliper and infrequently uses a wheelchair.  On review, and with MRI studies, John has experienced a resurgence of neuronal function late in his clinical course.  “Miracles” can still happen.


 What keeps you busy these days?  Looking forwards, what goals do you have?

I recently officially retired from active practice and look forward to the future with family and some improvement in my painting skills.


Is there anyone you would like to thank?

 I have greatly benefitted from my fellow travelers, including staff, colleagues, friends and family and am grateful for many medical friends both in Australia and overseas.  We will all continue to learn from each other as we share in our clinical experiences and research.  In the year 2000, it was a great honour to be awarded the Society Medal at our Annual Scientific Conference in Sydney by Professors Hans Frankel and Richard Jones.  There are many, many colleagues to thank.

Where to find us

National Spinal Injuries Centre,
Stoke Mandeville Hospital,
Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire,
HP21 8AL, United Kingdom

How to contact us

Tel: +44 1296 315 866


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