John Dean was born at Walsall, Staffordshire, the eldest son of a tool manufacturer Herbert Dean and his wife, Edith Elsie Yates, daughter of Simeon Yates, a collier. He was educated at Wednesbury High School, obtaining an exhibition in natural sciences to St Catherine’s College, Cambridge, where he was awarded first class honours in Part I of the natural sciences tripos in 1938. He received his education in clinical medicine at the Westminster Hospital medical school.
After holding one house physicianship at his teaching hospital, he was commissioned as temporary surgeon lieutenant RNVR and served in the Royal Navy, in HMS Ready, for three years. After demobilization he held house physician posts at the Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street, and the Westminster Hospital, before being appointed senior registrar in paediatrics at the Westminster and the Westminster Children’s Hospitals from 1947-50, when he became assistant to the professor of child health in London University, A A Moncrieff [Munk's Roll, Vol.VI, p.343], for four years; working mainly at Hammersmith Hospital in the care of newborn babies.
At that time vacancies for or new appointments of consultant paediatricians in the NHS fell far short of the numbers of suitably qualified applicants. Moreover, Dean - although greatly liked and respected by his contemporaries in paediatrics - was not always popular with his seniors for understandable, if unworthy, reasons. For example, during ward rounds he would present all the relevant facts in a case history succinctly and fairly, but did not deem it one of his duties to assist his chiefs to arrive at the correct conclusions. Thus it was to the regret, but not altogether to the surprise of his friends when in 1955 he felt compelled to seek a livelihood overseas. He emigrated, with his young family, to Canada and until his death, only three months after retirement, he lived and worked in Vancouver.
For one year he held the post of senior resident in paediatrics at the General Hospital, and on obtaining certification in paediatrics from the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada was appointed to the paediatric department of the medical faculty of the University of British Columbia, where he rose steadily in academic rank from teaching fellow in 1956 to associate professor in 1975. he had clinical responsibilities at the Children’s and at the General Hospital.
John Dean was too shy and self-effacing, and too indifferent to the promotion of his own career, ever to acquire a national, let alone an international reputation in paediatrics. He did little research worth the name and published little, other than contributions to paediatric textbooks. He had a cynical attitude concerning the evanescent value of most medical publications, and of the motives for publishing. But, if Dean’s reputation was not worldwide, he was greatly admired and valued in British Columbia for his teaching, his clinical excellence, and for his willingness to shoulder important but personally unrewarding planning and administrative responsibilities. In the words of his friend and ex-colleague Robert Hill, professor and head of the department of paediatrics at the University: ‘Dean was a valued consultant whose written opinions were models of brevity and precision, as were his verbal contributions to rounds, committee meetings and conversation.’
Dean had a profound knowledge of child health and ill health, which he kept up to date throughout his professional life. In respect of recent advances, however, he once said of himself that he ‘...would not feel too desperate if separated from a laboratory.’ His greatest strength, and the quality for which he will be remembered, lay in his gift for teaching. He had the ability to dissect a problem and to get at the essentials in simple terms, and to express himself clearly. He was deeply and retentively read in ‘worthwhile’ medical literature, and possessed an inexhaustible fund of apposite and often amusing anecdotes. Thus his ward rounds were memorable.
John Dean was short and spare. He spoke slowly and deliberately, with a distinct but unaffected drawl. To his friends he was the best of company: an ever interesting conversationalist and possessor of a ready wit. ‘Sardonic’ is the adjective most appropriately applied to his sense of humour but not to his character; since he was uncensorious of individual human failings and a most kind-hearted man. Contrasting, but by no means incompatible with a sense of humour, was his melancholic temperament - not depressive, and never remote. His life was indeed marred by tragedy: the deaths from malignant disease first of his only daughter when aged 26. and then of his wife in her 61st year: each was a beautiful and vivacious woman and together they had supplied a perfect foil to Dean’s habitual gloom. His family life, which had been a particularly happy one, was redeemed from utter tragedy by his affection for and satisfaction in the successful career of his son, John Melville Dean MB London, FRCPC, now an allergist and clinical immunologist in Vancouver.
Dean's interests, apart from his work, were intellectual rather than athletic, although he enjoyed watching, in England, first class cricket and, in Canada, American football, a game which he claimed - and half-persuaded the writer - to comprise numerous esoteric subtleties. He was a talented amateur mathematician and had represented Cambridge University at chess for four years. A more practical interest was that of cooking; with the assistance of his son he prepared delicious meat and fish dishes, allowing - nay encouraging - his womenfolk to cook the vegetables and do the washing-up.
He was a keen and learned gardener: and he died as a consequence of head injuries sustained on falling from a ladder while pruning a tall vine that had infiltrated the eaves of his home.
Sir Peter Tizard