Professor John Wyn Owen: Obituary

It was with great sadness that we reported the death last month of Professor John Wyn Owen CB FRSPH FLSW, a Founding Fellow of the Learned Society of Wales.

The following obituary has been written by Sir Emyr Jones Parry:

The National Health Service is a vital national interest.  But health sustainability needs an environment which maintains and improves human health and social wellbeing and recognizes the link between human, plant and animal health. The challenges are global. As is all too evident with the Coronavirus, they come from infectious disease, antibiotic resistance, pandemics, and intrusive species.  Critical, interrelated factors include food and its production, air and water quality, climate change, and human behaviour.

John Wyn Owen championed these issues throughout his life. His approach combined the community interest and the international context. He had an extensive career in the public, private and charity sector in the United Kingdom and internationally.    

On graduating , Owen began work at St Thomas’ Hospital, London, before his appointment as  Director of NHS Wales in 1985. Under his leadership for nine years, NHS Wales pioneered the concept of “health gain” and led the UK as an integrated health planning and delivery system taking account of the impact of ageing populations, economic uncertainty, migration, and more on the fundamentals of health. 

In 1993, Owen was appointed Director General the New South Wales State Health Department. His success led to the Chair of a Federal committee to provide national leadership, and responsibility for the health system to support the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. 

In 1997 he returned to the United Kingdom as Secretary of the Nuffield Trust. Under his stewardship, Nuffield focused on health research, and innovation, permitting better decision making, and on the implications of devolution.

John Wyn Owen was born in Bangor, educated at the Friar’s School and then St John’s College, Cambridge.  Owen treasured and maintained his association with the College.  

Owen was a proud bilingual Welshman, deeply committed to public health.  He was a visionary but practical in delivering health care, while acutely aware of the international dimension. In retirement in Wales, there was no let up.   He continued to make outstanding contributions to education and public health. He was a member of the Bevan Commission and a founding fellow of the Learned Society of Wales. Courteous and quietly spoken, he always contributed substantively.  His received many international honours and the CB in 1994.

 In 1967 he married Elizabeth Ann (nee Macfarlane).  They had one son, Dafydd, and a daughter, Sian. Nothing delighted John more than to be with his family and grandchildren. John Wyn Owen, public health specialist, born 15 May 1942 died of cancer on 1 February 2020.

No one contributed more to Wales in so many ways. Professor Owen’s dedication to the nation, to public health, to education, to tackling global challenges was outstanding. He combined experience, wisdom and vision uniquely and was a fount of positive ideas. He also served the Society as a member of our Council and as Treasurer.

Professor Owen’s vision for the ‘One Health’ approach – considering human, animal and environmental health together – drove much of his recent work for the Society. We were privileged to work with him to deliver the first “One Health Wales” event in 2019, and will do all we can to continue work in this field to honour his memory.