Award-winning surgeon: ‘Schooling at St Helens grammar made my medical career possible’

Professor John Fairclough believes there was 'no limit' on aspirations for grammar school pupils
Professor John Fairclough believes there was 'no limit' on aspirations for grammar school pupils

As the debate continues over the proposed re-introduction of grammar schools, a distinguished surgeon has told how he credits his success to his schooling in St Helens.

In an interview with the St Helens Reporter, former Cowley Grammar pupil, Professor John Fairclough said he would not have able to reach the professional heights he has without a grammar education.

Regularly named as one of the country’s best surgeons, Prof Fairclough rose from humble beginnings in Toll Barr to become one of Britain’s most respected doctors, with an illustrious patient list that includes rugby hero Jonny Wilkinson and Olympic hurdler Colin Jackson.

But, speaking to the Reporter in 2012, the then 58-year-old credited a large part of his success to the incredible schooling he received right here in St Helens.

“The education I received at Cowley Boys really was second to none,” said Prof Fairclough, a specialist knee surgeon at Llandough Hosital, “there was no ceiling put on what we could achieve.”

Prof Fairclough left Cowley in 1971 to study medicine at Nottingham University. He has gone on to become one of the most respected doctors in his field, pioneering new surgical techniques and helping countless sports stars return to peak condition.

He was named as one of the UK’s top surgeons by the Times newspaper.

Prof Fairclough said: “I don’t really read the Times but one of the sports stars I treat phoned me up to tell me. It was really a big surprise.

“Really, it is also a tribute to the superb education I received at Cowley.

“Cowley was a grammar but it was a St Helens grammar school which took boys from across St Helens.

“One of the interesting things about Cowley during that time was the feeling of hope among the pupils and staff.

“I think in my year there were only two out of 60 pupils who did not go on to university. That is really incredible.”

Prof Fairclough has now spent 25 years working in Wales but still makes regular trips back to St Helens to visit his mother and sister.

He grew up in Thomas Street, Toll Bar, just a few doors down from Saints legend Alex Murphy.

While both his parents worked for the NHS, his mum Stella as a doctors’ receptionist and his dad as a hospital butcher, they inspired their hard-working son by placing a great emphasis on the power of education.

“They taught me I could get where I wanted to get provided I was willing to put the work in,” he said.

An avid Saints fan as a boy, one of Prof Fairclough’s many roles nowadays on a stellar CV has been as a team doctor to the Wales rugby union side.

“I was taught rugby by Ray French at Cowley and grew up near Alex Murphy but I suppose I’ve switched codes.

“I’ve lived here for 25 years but to the Welsh players I’m still the Englishman and I think they’re still careful what they say around me,” he laughs.

Cowley Boys Grammar became a mixed secondary in the early 1980s but remains one of the best performing schools in St Helens.

And Prof Fairclough believes the ethos of the school instilled in him and many other alumni the drive to succeed in later ife.

He said: “One of the teachers who stands out was my chemistry teacher Bill Rosser. What he did was to take a group of children who had never seen chemistry before and made it come alive for them.

“He did things like show us how fireworks were made, which you just couldn’t do these days. “But the enthusiasm of all the teachers in those early days was what was so important.

“I think if you could replicate that and what we had at Cowley, there would be no problem in education today.”