Lives of the fellows

Peter Ewart Romney Tattersall

b.1 May 1915 d.20 May 1982
MB ChB Leeds(1939) MD(1946) MRCP(1946) FRCP(1968)

Born in Neath, South Wales, Peter Tattersall followed his father and elder brother Rex (see Vol. VI) in taking up medicine. Educated at Epsom College, where he showed no special aptitudes and did not shine at games, he graduated from the University of Leeds in 1939 with first class honours and was awarded the William Hey gold medal. At the outbreak of the second world war he joined the RAMC and saw service in France with the 51st Highland Division. During the evacuation of the BEF a medical officer was needed to stay with a large group of wounded men - Peter lost the toss and spent the rest of the war as a POW in various camps, looking after prisoners of many nationalities and enduring great hardship and semi-starvation. On 22 January 1945 he, with some 6000 other prisoners, left Stalag 344 at Lamsdorf in Silesia, close to the Polish border, on a forced march of some 600 miles in bitterly cold conditions. Hitler apparently thought that Allied POWs might be useful as hostages and ordered them back towards Berlin in front of the advancing Russian armies. During the following three months Peter kept a daily diary until he, with the 2000 others who survived, were liberated by the Americans in West Germany on 12 April. This diary, along with others he kept, is in the Imperial War Museum. It is a fascinating factual account of this incredible journey done on starvation rations in often freezing conditions; marching 20 — 30 kilometers a day with inadequate boots and clothes, and with many of the men sleeping in bams with a little straw, or even outside in the snow. Dysentery, pneumonia, starvation, multiple vitamin deficiencies, diphtheria and sheer exhaustion caused most of the deaths. Peter himself suffered a very severe febrile throat infection with membrane formation which he thought was diphtheria, although it may have been Vincent’s angina. He only survived by hanging onto a horse drawn cart for several days. Never, during those three months, however ill or exhausted he was himself, did he fail to attend the sick in his care. He was sometimes able to get a few of the worst cases into a civilian hospital and to arrange rough transport for some of the others. His supplies of drugs were pitiable. There is, however, no hint of despair in his writing, although he was clearly obsessed by hunger and detailed the meagre ration with meticulous care. When the sun shone he recorded it with thankfulness — when the diet was supplemented in any way he rejoiced.

He clearly not only lived up to the highest standards of the medical profession, but was also a man of great personal courage and endurance. He was just seven stones when liberated.

I have dwelt at some length on his wartime experiences as they epitomized Peter’s character. Although small he was tough; he was also cheerful, tolerant, shrewd, highly intelligent and a very kind and good doctor. He had great insight into human character, and his patients and many friends found themselves talking freely to him in an unusual way. He had great charm of manner and was as popular with men as he was with women, who found him very attractive.

Medically, he had a clinical flair for diagnosis and an ability to integrate modern investigations and treatment methods with the best traditional medicine. He avoided administration — outside that of his own department — if he could, and was sometimes very brusque to those administrators whom he considered had failed him.

When he arrived at the County Hospital, Omagh, Co. Tyrone, in 1949 much was needed in the way of beds, staff and equipment to bring it up to modern standards. While Peter’s main love was his own department and his hobby was cardiology, he did much to help the needs of the other consultants and pulled his weight as a medical staff member.

At this time the fishing in the rivers and lakes of Northern Ireland was excellent and Peter was an expert fisherman - both for trout and salmon. Deep wading in fast rivers with many stones, boulders and rocky ledges is hazardous, but Peter throve on it and his rewards were rich. In his later years when the dredging of rivers, silage effluent, over-netting in the sea and estuaries and poaching had done much to ruin the fishing, he still had the knack of knowing where to go and when.

Grouse also were plentiful in the area in the 1950s (now virtually extinct) and Peter enjoyed many a day walking up behind setters and pointers. He kept setters himself for many years - if they were not perfectly disciplined one sensed that he himself had had his fill of discipline and privation and that he wanted to fill his remaining years with enjoyment, subject only to this not interfering with medical responsibility. Rough shooting, open air skating and cricket he enjoyed. He was also a good golfer and bridge player, but Peter did not neglect his creature comforts. He lived well, liked good food, good wine and good company and he found plenty of the latter in Ulster. The Northern Irish hospitality is world famous and Peter used to love telling how a domiciliary visit in the country might end up with the GP driving him home.

He was himself, with Helen his wife, an excellent host and was particularly good to his junior staff, whom he entertained regularly, and he was renowned for his bedside and outpatient teaching. He was an early authority on sarcoidosis and a very keen cardiologist, although he was general physician, paediatrician and geriatrician for many years. He had studied cardiology at the Middlesex Hospital after his repatriation, and while working for his MD and MRCP, and always acknowledged his lifelong debt to Evan Bedford.

If Peter had a fault it was a reluctance to put pen to paper. There was a wealth of clinical material in his area upon which he taught with great ability and authority, but the task of disease indexing and publishing did not appeal to him.

There is no doubt that this area of Northern Ireland was extremely fortunate in having as its very first physician such a good all rounder as Peter Tattersall. He was in great demand by his colleagues and the general practitioners; was worshipped by the nursing staff, and loved by his patients. In all his work and other activities he was most ably helped and supported by his wife Helen (née Kilbum) who waited five long years for him to come back from the war, who bore him three children, and who lovingly nursed and supported him during his last years when crippled by severe drug-resistant Parkinson’s disease.

TJ Wilmot

[Brit.med.J., 1982, 285, 68]

(Volume VII, page 569)

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