Sir John Charnley

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Sir John Charnley


British Surgeon and Inventor

In the late 1950s and early 1960s John Charnley developed successful techniques and materials for total hip replacement (THR) surgery. This operation is now common, and is responsible for giving long-term pain relief and restoring mobility, functionality, and high quality of life to millions of patients.

Charnley was born into a middle class Methodist family in Bury, a northwestern suburb of Manchester, England. His father, Arthur, was what is called a "chemist" in Britain but a "pharmacist" in America. His mother, Lily, was a nurse. He had a younger sister, Mary, who received her degree in English literature from Girton College, Cambridge University, and had a distinguished career as a teacher and school administrator.

Charnley went through the usual boys' course of study at Bury Grammar School from 1919 to 1929. He was not a diligent student, but did well in science. In the fall of 1929 he entered the Victoria University of Manchester School of Medicine. In 1935 he received both the Bachelor of Medicine (M.B.) and Bachelor of Surgery (Ch.B.) degrees. He became a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1936.

When World War II began in 1939, Charnley already had plenty of surgical experience in several prominent British hospitals. He volunteered for military service immediately, and was commissioned a lieutenant in the Royal Army Medical Corps in May 1940. That same month he participated in the evacuation of trapped British soldiers from Dunkirk, France. From 1941 to 1944 he was an orthopedic surgeon to the British forces in North Africa. While stationed in Cairo he began inventing and improving orthopedic devices and instruments. He arrived back in England just before D-Day, and returned to civilian life in February 1946.

His first two books, Closed Treatment of Common Fractures (1950) and Compression Arthrodesis (1953), established his reputation as an innovative and thoughtful biomechanical engineer as well as a surgeon. In 1958 the Manchester Royal Infirmary allowed Charnley to create his own hip surgery facility at Wrightington Hospital. This was the great turning point in his career, because it gave him the resources and staff to perform the kinds of experiments and operations he envisioned.

At Wrightington Charnley was incredibly productive. He used polytetrafluorethylene (PTFE), better known as Teflon, and stainless steel to realize his ideas for "low friction arthroplasty," that is, manufacturing and safely implanting strong, durable, biochemically inert artificial joints. In 1961 he published his basic results in Lancet, an influential British journal of medicine. By the mid-1960s THR had become a routine surgical procedure.

Charnley's major book, Low Friction Arthroplasty of the Hip: Theory and Practice (1979), described his further refinements of THR. His methods of attaching the artificial hip joint or "prosthesis" to the inside of the femur reduced the need for second operations. His clean-air surgical systems and sterile operating techniques decreased surgical wound infection.

Charnley was almost 46 when he married Jill Heaver, 20 years his junior, in 1957. Their son Tristram was born in 1959 and their daughter Henrietta in 1960. Charnley tried hard to be a good father, but could not cope with what William Waugh termed, in his standard biography John Charnley: The Man and the Hip, the "two-generation gap." Charnley especially could not tolerate the youth culture of the 1970s, and grew distant from his children, but reconciled with them when they became adults. They, along with his wife and sister, were nearby when he died in Manchester of complications from two heart attacks.

Charnley received several prestigious honors for his work, including Companion of the British Empire (1970), Fellow of the Royal Society (1975), and Knight Bachelor (1977).


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Sir John Charnley

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