John Wickham: the godfather of robotic surgery

Wickham1John Wickham can rightly be claimed to be the godfather of endourology and the impact of his work on minimally invasive surgery across specialties is still evident today. Yet, during his career, he faced criticism from his colleagues who didn’t share his vision and belief that innovation would benefit patients. He introduced ESWL, PCNL and (with Malcolm Coptcoat) laparoscopic nephrectomy to the UK, and was the founding president of the Endo-Urology Society. His influence crossed surgical specialty with his pioneering work with the Minimally Invasive Society. In his most ambitious project, the automomous TURP machine Probot, he foresaw the subsequent revolution in robotic surgery.   
Read Dominic Hodgson’s article on John Wickham, part of the Trends in Urology & Men’s Health ‘Heroes of our Time’ series. Have you worked with John? Do you have any memories or thoughts you want to share with others? Please add your comments below ­- we would love to read them.
Comments (14) Add yours ↓
  1. Christopher Woodhouse

    There were many urological problems for which John wanted simpler solutions, by which he meant simpler for the patients. The observation that open ureterolithotomy required a 10cm incision to get out a 5mm stone prompted him to develop a minimally invasive approach. He showed that it was possible to achieve, but the technique was quickly superseded by even less invasive methods. Nonetheless, it illustrates the manner in which John was driven constantly to lead improvements in urology

    December 3, 2015 Reply
  2. Graham Watson

    It was 1982 when John gave me the project of finding a way to break up stones with lasers. I ventured out on this seemingly impossible task and John was always backing me to the hilt and inspiring me with his fundamental belief that it could be done. In 1984 and having visited countless countries I came back to England armed with the pulsed dye laser and together with John we performed the first clinical series of ureteroscopic laser fragmentation. The principles of using a pulsed laser at a wavelength that was absorbed by the stone delivered via a fibre in contact with the stone in fluid are the same principles we use today. I may have had to cooperate with august institutions and industries from Boston, USA, but the vision originated in The mind of John Wickham.

    December 3, 2015 Reply
  3. Krishna

    Mr John Wickham can be considered da Vinci of our generation. He always thought of innovative approach to solve challenging medical situations. He also believed in the concept that technology helps and ideas change. He kind of proved that those who do not believe in this concept are condemned to dinosourism.
    I was not fortunate to work with him but I have heard about his dedication towards improving newer techniques. My teacher from India, Dr Phadke had visited him while he was developing PCNL for kidney stones. He told me that Mr Wickham and Dr Mike Kellate were almost spending days and nights in theaters to get the technique perfected. What a devotion towards patient care.
    He was the first urologist to think of a machine called Probot to perform TURP. He sowed the seeds and we are reaping the fruits with the da Vinci Robot now.
    Great innovator and down to earth simple person.

    December 3, 2015 Reply
  4. Roger Kirby

    I worked with John when I was a senior registrar at the Middlesex when Richard Turner Warwick suggested that I trade places with Graham Watson (who was an undergraduate with me at Cambridge) and spent a very happy year at St Peter’s, Covent Garden. John was an inspirational and innovative leader in urology. In retrospect probably his greatest contribution was the development, together with the excellent Mike Kellett, of percutaneous renal stone surgery. He also was largely responsible for the introduction of ESWL to the UK. A brilliant surgeon, great teacher and all round wonderful person – John we salute you, as well as Anne, your constantly supportive wife.

    December 4, 2015 Reply
  5. Peter Whelan

    John Wickham’s innovation of percutaneous surgery saved many a kidney from ending in the bucket.Working in an Institution that initially tried to buck the trend and treat all stones with lithotripsy ,we soon were back doing it properly! His infectious enthusiasm moved many to try his methods but in the early days it was general surgeons removing gall bladders who most benefited from his innovations.He was a tireless source of ideas and projects which continued ,unabated well past his formal retirement.He is a true giant not just of british but of World Urology.

    December 5, 2015 Reply
  6. Matthew Bultitude

    Having started medical school the year John Wickham retired, it was only recently that I actually met the ‘legend’ properly when I sat next to him at a dinner. Still full of enthusiasm for urology and innovation, we reminisced about the “good old days” and the utter revolution that PCNL and ESWL bought to stone surgery that totally transformed it from the speciality it was back in the 1970’s to what I know it is today. I would certainly agree with the above comments that PCNL must be listed as his most notable achievement.

    December 6, 2015 Reply
  7. John Boyd

    John Wickham played a critical role in enabling me to start PCNL. I referred him patients and he encouraged me to attend when he treated them. The experience was a true revelation. I then bought the instruments, Mike Kellett provided the access for my patients and I was able to enter this new endourological world. John’s approach was a perfect example of how to spread new skills and techniques.

    December 7, 2015 Reply
  8. Ben Challacombe

    I first met John Wickham when he examined me for my MS thesis in robotics and a more appropriate and knowledgeable examiner I couldn’t have hoped to have found.
    Having researched his huge contribution to urology not just in minimally invasive stone surgery but also in true robotics I have been amazed by his passion for discovery and true innovation.
    There are still theatre staff at Guys who remember the Probot trials and I have a video clip from a tomorrow’s world programme showing the robot in action.
    We recently got him to the opening of the Guys Vattikuti robotics centre and sat him on a da Vinci Xi to have a play with it.
    He looked amazingly happy to see how things had evolved in the last 20 years.
    This is in no small part down to himself and his pioneering innovation.

    December 7, 2015 Reply
  9. culley carson

    As an American, John Wickham was a genius and outstanding contributor. I was an early adopter of the percutaneous approach to renal stones but was quite anxious about the procedures. I visited John Wickham for 2 weeks and he was a wonderful teacher and helped me establish percutaneous renal surgery at Duke where I was in those days. I phoned him and asked for his help with cases at meetings and by mail (snail mail then) and he was always the consummate gentleman and provided wise and expert counsel. Without the pioneering contributions of John Wickham, we would not have the endourology expertise and excellence that we all practice in the 21st century.

    December 9, 2015 Reply
  10. Ian Eardley

    I never actually worked with John since he’d just left Barts when I arrived as an SHO in 1985. However our paths crossed on many occasions over the years and when he was awarded the Cheselden medal by RCS London in 2015 I was asked to read his citation. The medal is awarded to recognise unique achievements in, and exceptional contributions to, the advancement of surgery. The interesting thing is that even the general surgeons in the College were amazed by his contributions to minimally invasive surgery in general, not just in urology. A giant.

    December 13, 2015 Reply
  11. Nigel Bullock

    I fully endorse everything that has been said about John. I was his Senior Registrar at St Paul’s Hospital when Bob Whitaker arranged a 6-month swap for me with an Australian trainee (Peter Langdon) who briefly took my place in Cambridge. John motivated me to develop a primary interest in stone disease and, once appointed to my Consultant post in 1985, to develop PCNL, ESWL and ureteroscopy. By the time I retired in 2010, I id little else but stone surgery!

    He was a brilliant innovator but, despite his interest in minimally-invasive surgery, he was also an outstandingly good open surgeon. To watch him doing an open staghorn removal through his standard 6-inch incision was nothing short of magical.

    December 15, 2015 Reply
  12. Rick Popert

    As a medical student at Bart’s I attended his clinics and theatre within the Urology service. As a student one did not recognise the pioneering from the routine. By the time I was a house officer in 1985 and SHO in 1986 PCNL was well established and he was recognised as the innovator of PCNL. The techniques he developed are now core practise within endourology. He has influenced the development of endourological services in all the major teaching hospitals and urology centres worldwide and an inspiration to all the innovators that have followed him. That has to be his greatest accolade.

    December 30, 2015 Reply
  13. Gary Glover

    I was told by Neri, the nurse I have known since the days in or near Covent Garden, I was the first to be operated using PCNL by Mr Wickham. The operation took place in the London Clinic about 40 years ago. I have always wondered if that were the case. Gary J. Glover

    February 29, 2016 Reply


    December 29, 2016 Reply

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