Lives of the fellows

Peter Gerald Nelson

b.28 February 1943 d.[?] 1991
MB BCh BAO(1966) MRCP(1968) FRCP(1984)

By the time Peter Gerald Nelson graduated with honours in medicine from Queen’s University, Belfast, he had established the reputations, both medical and social, which he maintained until his tragically early death.

He was born in Belfast where his father, Maurice Gerald Nelson,was a clinical pathologist. Peter was educated at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution and Queen’s University, pursuing his clinicals at the Royal Victoria Hospital. On the academic front, as an undergraduate, he had a record that would be difficult, if not impossible, to surpass. A Foundation Scholarship at the end of the old ‘pre-medical’ first year was followed at ‘2nd MB’ level by first place overall in his year - anatomy, physiology and biochemistry - together with the Symington medal in anatomy in the preclinical course. Thereafter he dominated his year, picking up medals in social medicine, therapeutics and pathology, and the Magrath clinical scholarship in medicine, obstetrics and gynaecology along the way. As if that was not enough, he also won the prestigious Malcolm (4th year) and Coulter (5th Year) exhibitions, the Smyth prize in surgery and the Thomson medal in medicine presented by Belfast’s major teaching hospital, the Royal Victoria.

For many of us even a fraction of this academic success would have meant six years spent in libraries and wards to the exclusion of sampling all the other pleasures of undergraduate medical experience. But if scholarships and exhibitions had been on offer for undergraduate exploits which annoy earnest hospital administrators and exasperate dedicated night matrons - then Peter Nelson would have carried them off as well.

After a post as house officer at the Royal Victoria, he opted for a career in hospital medicine and obtained his membership of the College in 1968, just two years after graduation. In the late 1960s in Belfast he played an active role in the cardiac unit of Frank Pantridge, whose work and ideas gave birth to the concept of pre-hospital clinical care. In the early 1970s he was Nuffield research fellow in David Pyke’s diabetes unit at King’s College Hospital, London, and was involved in the pioneering studies on diabetes in twins, which led ultimately to a much greater understanding of the genetics of diabetes mellitus.

I suspect that diabetes and endocrinology would have been his chosen specialty had the opportunity of a consultancy presented itself in Belfast at that time. But what did come up in 1975 was the new post of consultant in accident and emergency medicine at the Royal Victoria Hospital. Peter embraced this enthusiastically and along with his surgical colleague William Rutherford, and others, he edited Accident and emergency medicine, London, Churchill Livingstone, 1980. This was considered one of the best texts on a specialty which - at that time and on this side of the Atlantic - was in its relative infancy. In 1984 he was elected a Fellow of the College.

The carousing for which he had become infamous as an undergraduate was continued throughout his life, though never at the expense of his professional duties. He had married a fellow medical student, Valerie Gleadhill, and together they enjoyed a frenetic social life. Valerie was generally tolerant of his frequent excesses, sometimes getting him out of awkward situations, occasioned by his bizarre exploits, sometimes revelling in them. Like many extroverts, he would often overstep the bounds of conventional acceptability and his behaviour, when sobriety had departed, could stretch the patience even of his best friends. But for the most part his frolics were good-natured and his presence at any function added an extra dimension of unpredictability; it has to be admitted that this could be rather unnerving for hosts - and particularly hostesses. But he was a generous host himself, affording people plenty of opportunity to get their own back.

Peter attacked - I feel that is the right word - a number of sporting activities with a similar gusto. He was quite heavily built but was remarkably agile on a squash court, with a delicate touch which supplemented a naturally aggressive style, and he represented Ulster at squash on several occasions. As a member of the Royal Belfast Golf Club he had a single figure handicap; he could drive a ball a huge distance. I discovered that all his clubs, apart from the putter, had bent shafts from the force of his follow through hitting his back. In the last few years, he was more likely to be found on the waters of Strangford Lough than the fairways of Royal Belfast. He skippered a Glen ‘lone-design’ class boat with a fierce competiveness, yet as in his other pursuits he was determined that above all there should be an element of fun and enjoyment for those brave enough to crew for him.

Peter had firm ideas about what was and what was not important in life. For all his unconventionality, he had a deep respect for the traditions of the medical profession but little time for petty authority. Like a growing number of physicians of his generation he was uncomfortable with the old paternalistic attitudes prevalent in medical practice until quite recently, preferring to allow that most patients wanted and could handle real medical information about themselves, even when the news was bad.

In his last year he showed just how well he himself could come to terms with his own mortality. In May 1990 he had had a cough for a few weeks and, being a lifelong non-smoker, was surprised and alarmed to have a haemoptysis. He diagnosed his own cancer, already well advanced, on his chest x-ray taken in his own department, and immediately determined that as far as possible it would not interfere with his lifestyle. He continued to entertain, amuse and outrage, but all the while he quietly set about putting his affairs in order. He made it as easy as possible for those who knew and loved him to come to terms with his inevitable premature death. At least a thousand people - from diverse walks of life - came to his funeral; recoginiton that Belfast, not just the medical profession, had lost one of its real characters.

L Kennedy

(Volume IX, page 387)

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