Weaver, John Andrew (1923–2013), soldier and physician, was born on 20 December 1923 at Ballytrim, Killyleagh, Co. Down, the elder of two sons of William Weaver, a farmer, and his wife Emily, a former bank official. The family had farmed flax for generations at Ballytrim, but moved to Windmill Road, Bangor, after William’s health failed in the early 1930s. John entered Bangor Grammar School in 1936, taking his junior certificate (1939), senior certificate (1941) and civil service exams there. Having served as an ARP (Air Raid Precautions) messenger, he volunteered for the British army on leaving school in July 1941 and was posted to a tank regiment in Catterick, Yorkshire.
Although not yet eighteen, he decided to seek a commission, but was not old enough to become an officer. The army commissioning board informally encouraged him to join the Indian army, where there were no such barriers. He travelled to India in 1942 and was commissioned into the 5th Royal Gurkha rifle regiment, deployed that autumn in controlling civil unrest. He then volunteered for the newly formed 153rd (Gurkha) parachute battalion, part of the 50th Indian parachute brigade, and served in the attritional Burma campaign (1943–5). When in early 1944 the Allies captured Japanese plans for an attack Kohima, gateway to the strategically important northerly approach to the Imphal plane and thus India, Weaver’s previous experience with tanks led to his appointment as a transport officer; during defensive preparations he was employed shepherding tanks though Burma’s craggy ridges and undulating terrain.
In spring 1944 he lived in a bunker for two months during the defence of Imphal as the Japanese attempted to cut Allied supply lines and capture an essential supply depot required for their advance into India. Troops endured fierce temperatures and stifling humidity in terrain dominated by impregnable jungle, which saw tropical disease inflict much higher casualties than enemy action. In May 1945 the Gurkha airborne battalion parachuted into Elephant Point, assisting the capture of Rangoon by the British 14th army. Weaver made twenty-seven offensive parachute jumps during the Burma campaign, when airborne tactics, technology and training were in their early days and casualties in airborne units were usually high. These difficulties were compounded by the fact that the 50th parachute brigade was regularly short of men and supplies and the 14th army often referred to itself as the ‘forgotten army’. In 1946 Weaver was demobilised with the rank of major.
On his return to Northern Ireland, he studied medicine at QUB (1946–50), graduating MB, B.Ch., and BAO with honours. After training as a houseman and resident medical officer at the Royal Victoria Hospital Belfast (RVH), he began post-graduate training in pathology under the exacting dean of medicine, Sir John Henry Biggart (1905–79), whose rigorous autopsies (before advanced imaging techniques were commonplace) spurred Weaver’s acquisition of an extensive knowledge of internal medicine. He was concurrently senior tutor in medicine and assistant lecturer in pathology at QUB (1951–55), where he gained his MD in 1954 with a thesis entitled ‘Hormone control of the thymus and lymph nodes’, for which he gained a commendation. That year he became a member of the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) in London, and then a medical registrar at RVH. He was the first recipient of the RVH’s funded research fellowship (1955) and won a prestigious travelling fellowship from the UK Medical Research Council, allowing him to study endocrinology at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. While in the USA (1956–7) he trained at the Radioisotope Technical School at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Tennessee, formerly part of the Manhattan Project (1942–5), then transitioning to promoting the peaceful application of nuclear technology. Here he gained proficiency in the use of radioactive iodine in diagnosing and treating thyroid disorders, techniques he subsequently introduced in Belfast.
In 1959 he was appointed a consultant physician in general medicine and metabolic diseases at the RVH and worked there until 1989. During these three decades he combined expertise in endocrinology and metabolic disorders with a significant workload as a general physician. Expert in managing acute emergency medicine, he was widely respected by peers and staff for his willingness to shoulder a significant workload. He worked in the Sir George E. Clark Metabolic Unit, which combined specialist inpatient and outpatient facilities to manage diabetes and a range of endocrine disorders, and undertook many clinical research projects examining the aetiology and treatment of diabetes and other endocrine conditions.
In 1970 he was made a fellow of the RCP (London). He co-wrote two papers that appeared in The Lancet (1972) and examined the links between heart disease and diabetes, and the incidence of heart attack in diabetics. They informed the subsequent Belfast Diet Study (1972–82), an observational enquiry into type 2 diabetes, then little studied, undertaken with David Hadden (1936–2014) and others. This rigorous randomly controlled trial was foundational in the examination of type 2 diabetes and was widely cited. Demonstrating the importance of strict diet control in managing the condition, the Belfast study informed the subsequent large-scale UK Prospective Diabetes Study (1977–97), which conclusively proved symptoms of type 2 diabetes could be reduced by managing blood glucose and blood pressure in patients. In 1983 Weaver gave the ‘winter oration’ at RVH, marking the annual commencement of the teaching session, and chaired the Medical Staff Committee (1985–7). He was much in demand at various medical colloquia, and his aversion to flying led him to make several epic rail journeys across Europe to present his research findings.
Weaver was a founder member of the Corrigan Club, named after Sir Dominic Corrigan (qv) and established in 1960s to promote friendship among consultant physicians across the island of Ireland, and chaired the club in 1985; he also chaired the Ulster Society for Internal Medicine (1980–84) and the Irish Endocrine Society (1984). He was elected president (1984–5) of the Ulster Medical Society and his presidential address to that society, and a memorial to Biggart, were both published in the Ulster Medical Journal. In 1988 he was elected president of the Association of Physicians of Great Britain and Ireland and the following year was awarded an OBE for services to medicine. After his election to the senate of QUB (1992–2001) by the convocation of graduates, he assiduously attended meetings and chaired the military education committee in the mid 1990s. In December 1994 he defended the senate’s decision to omit the Northern Ireland national anthem ‘God save the Queen’ from university graduation ceremonies and its replacement by the European anthem, Beethoven’s ‘Ode to joy’. During a debate on the issue in April 1995, he responded to criticisms from leading unionists such as David Trimble, John Taylor and David Burnside by asserting his strong unionist credentials and quoting Disraeli’s opinion that a university should promote ‘life, learning and liberty’ (Ulster Herald, 6 Apr.1995).
In addition to his various professional positions, Weaver was a DL for Co. Down, a trustee of the Somme Association, a captain in the RAMC Territorial Army NI, medical officer to the Northern Irish Horse Regiment, and was active in QUB OTC and military history circles. With his wife Iris, whom he married in 1952, he lived in Adelaide Park, Belfast; they had two sons together, both of whom entered medicine. He spent his last days at the Somme Nursing Home, Belfast, and died there of pulmonary fibrosis on 16 June 2013. After his cremation in Roselawn Cemetery, Belfast, a thanksgiving service was held at Fisherwick Presbyterian Church, Malone Road, Belfast.