scorecardresearch Skip to main content

John Constable; brought surgery talents to remote villages

Dr. Constable was an early member of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.Globe staff/file 1967

While on assignment in South Vietnam for a US government agency, Dr. John D. Constable was preparing to return to Boston in early 1968 when the North Vietnamese military launched the Tet Offensive.

As fighting intensified, he volunteered to help at a Saigon hospital, where he and other physicians removed bullets and shrapnel from hundreds of civilians. While sleeping there between shifts, he faced a scene one night unlike anything he would encounter in his career as a plastic surgeon and burn specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital.

“About 1 a.m., we were awakened by shots in the courtyard of the hospital, followed by footsteps racing through the corridors, and then shots ringing out inside the hospital,” he told the Globe several days later.


The hospital’s chief of surgery “sent word to us to smooth out our beds as if nobody were using them and to hide underneath them,” Dr. Constable said. The North Vietnamese forces, he was told, “didn’t kill Vietnamese doctors or nurses, but they might hold American doctors hostage if they came into the room and found us.”

After surviving that night, he returned home, where he combined work as a senior surgeon at Mass. General with extensive humanitarian and antiwar efforts, including becoming an early member of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985.

Dr. Constable, whose expansive interests ranged from natural history to the arts and Sherlock Holmes, died June 6 in his Sherborn home of complications from Parkinson’s disease. He was 88.

With a British accent from his early childhood in London, Dr. Constable possessed the kind of charm that seemed out of England’s Edwardian era, said his longtime friend Dr. Eric Chivian, a cofounder of the International Physicians.

“He was an inveterate world traveler and an authority of its art and history and how best to experience them,” Chivian wrote in a tribute, adding Dr. Constable “was a connoisseur of fine food and wine and conversation, and brought to the table enormous wit, and a gracious, elegant, Old World style.”


Yet Dr. Constable, who honed his traveling habits during numerous trips to train physicians in Southeast Asia, was also supremely practical. “John was an expert on how to travel with the least amount of stuff,” Chivian added in an interview. “He was always giving us tips on how to pack everything you needed in a knapsack and carry it over your shoulder.”

From a single carry-on Dr. Constable “could clothe himself for two weeks’ time. It was quite incredible,” said Dr. Bryant Toth, a San Francisco plastic surgeon who trained under Dr. Constable and traveled with him on humanitarian trips.

In recognition of Dr. Constable’s humanitarian work, the American Association of Plastic Surgeons created a fellowship so plastic surgeons from around the world can train with association members in the United States. Recipients have included surgeons from Albania, China, Egypt, Iraq, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Vietnam.

While creating a physician exchange program, Dr. Constable visited Vietnam so often that he once estimated he had spent a full year there in total. In 1991, Vietnam’s government presented Dr. Constable with the medal for the Friendship Order, and the Globe reported that he was the first American to receive the award.


Dr. Constable “was indeed one of the first in our specialty to utilize medicine as a true currency for peace and meaningful cultural exchange,” Toth wrote in a tribute for the American Association of Plastic Surgeons.

Chivian noted that Dr. Constable also contributed a chapter on treating burn injuries to “Last Aid: The Medical Dimensions of Nuclear War,” which the International Physicians published in the 1980s.

“John was the natural person to write the chapter on what would happen with burns from nuclear war,” Chivian said. “The chapter he wrote really became the definitive review of the subject.”

Born in London, John Davidson Constable was a son of William G. Constable and the former Olivia Carson-Roberts. His father, a noted art historian, brought the family to the United States when he was appointed curator of paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Dr. Constable graduated from Browne and Nichols School and went to Harvard College, where he decided to pursue medicine, despite his fascination with herpetology – the study of reptiles and amphibians. He graduated from Harvard with the class of 1947 and from Harvard Medical School in 1952.

During medical training he spent two years in the Navy and was stationed on a ship off Taiwan at the end of the Korean War. Dr. Constable later wrote in a Harvard class report that he used a bicycle, which he stored in the upper bunk of his cabin, to explore Japan and other countries whenever there was time ashore.


Back home he focused on plastic surgery at Mass. General and also treated children at Shriners Burns Institute. Through relatives he was introduced to Sylvia Paine, whom he married in 1957.

For his class report, Dr. Constable wrote that in 1967 he “went as one of the initial team for the Committee of Responsibility to visit almost every civilian hospital in South Vietnam in order to make the first reasonably complete survey of civilian war casualties.” The medical conditions he found, and his observations of the harm children suffered in the war, inspired his subsequent humanitarian efforts.

Through his work and travels, Dr. Constable became an honorary member of plastic surgery and medical societies in Egypt, France, Thailand, Turkey, and Vietnam.

He also was a board member, trustee, or overseer of institutions including the Opera Company of Boston, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, the New England Wild Flower Society, and the New England Aquarium.

“A lot of people called him a Renaissance man because his curiosity was widespread and deep with so many topics,” said his daughter Isabel of Albuquerque.

In addition to his wife and daughter, Dr. Constable leaves two other daughters, Amelia of Sherborn, and Clair of London; his brother, Giles of Princeton, N.J.; and three grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Oct. 1 in First Church in Cambridge.

Along with his many interests, Dr. Constable had been the longest-serving leader of The Speckled Band of Boston, a Sherlock Holmes society where his former official title was Keeper of the Band.


Attending meetings wearing a cravat and a frock coat with satin piping, and sporting an ivory-handled walking stick, Dr. Constable “could answer any question related to the life of Sherlock Holmes,” said his successor as keeper, Daniel Posnansky. “He really used the methods of Sherlock Holmes as a physician himself, and he was known for that.”

Dr. Constable also led natural history tours. Whether he was explaining the sights or discussing trips afterward, “he was a storyteller,” Isabel said. “He was observant and he was very particular about how he expressed himself. He was someone who really enjoyed words and the power of words.”

Marquard can be reached at