He was born in Ashfield, the second of four children. The family lived in Huthwaite and he went to Brunts Grammar School. His elder brother also became a doctor and his younger twin sisters became nurses. He married Betty Oxley who also lived in Huthwaite.
He trained as a clinical pathologist at University College Hospital and joined the Socialist Medical Association. He campaigned for the establishment of the NHS during the 1945 election. He did two years’ National Service in the Royal Army Medical Corps. He was appointed in 1949 as senior registrar in pathology and deputy director of pathology at Newcastle General Hospital and was professor of pathology at Newcastle University from 1973 to 1985. The family moved to Low Fell. His main research was into dementia and Alzheimer’s. In 1982 he was appointed by Norman Fowler to chair the Northern Regional Health Authority, the first medic to do so.
He was appointed CBE in 1981 and he was knighted in 1988.
In 1991 he was asked by William Waldegrave to produce a report on Healthcare in London, which was known as the Tomlinson review. It recommended the closure of Charing Cross Hospital, Middlesex Hospital and St Bartholomew's Hospital, the merger of Guy’s and Thomas’ and the closure of ten smaller hospitals. The government accepted the report. Middlesex did close, Guy's and Thomas' did merge, but most of the recommendations were not implemented because they were too controversial.
- "Professor Sir Bernard Tomlinson". Times. 10 July 2017. Retrieved 10 July 2017.
- "Report of the Inquiry into London's Health Service, Medical Education and Research". HMSO. October 1992. Retrieved 10 July 2017.