Lives of the fellows

Peter Alec James Ball

b.22 January 1928 d.12 February 2006
MB BChir Lond(1952) MRCP(1954) MD(1960) FRCP(1970

Peter Ball was a consultant gastroenterologist at Middlesex Hospital. Had there been a degree course in zoology at Cambridge in 1946, his career might have been very different. He matriculated from Winchester College to read classics at Trinity College, but changed his mind, spending the summer acquiring the necessary sciences and went up to read medicine, qualifying at the Middlesex Hospital in 1952 as a Broderip scholar. He showed early signs of his lifelong fascination for natural history, breeding rabbits with more than a schoolboy interest in genetics in his parents’ garden in Hampshire during the war, later identifying a new crocus in the Caucasus for Brian Mathew at Kew, and using the butterfly habitats in his own Hertfordshire garden for an Open University module on statistics for scientists, undertaken out of interest at 60. He was a competent sailor, an expert botanist and ornithologist, and spoke at least seven languages, including the ones he preferred for ‘pas devant les enfants’ – Swedish and Icelandic.

His career in medicine was shaped by his zoological interests. He undertook research in Cardiff and in Turku in Finland, and was seconded in 1961 to University College in Ibadan, Nigeria, first as a research fellow, and then as senior lecturer, to finish his doctorate in parasitology, infecting himself with hookworm so that he could have an easily accessible control. His second lifelong passion, for Africa and its peoples, was born here. He returned to London in 1964, joining the staff of the Middlesex Hospital as a consultant gastroenterologist and general physician, becoming in parallel postgraduate sub-dean, looking after Astor College, a multidisciplinary university hall of residence, and continuing his research into nematodes at the Zoological Society of London until 1972 (the free tickets to the zoo this brought with it were much welcomed by his five children).

He had an enduring interest in tropical medicine, and gained a formidable reputation as a diagnostician and clinician. From 1978 to 1979 he took leave of absence from the NHS and returned to Nigeria as a professor of medicine on a fixed contract at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, where a combination of strikes and local incompetence meant that he had literally to build his own clinical unit. He made some close friends in those often challenging years, and rejoiced in recounting the sale in Zaria, at greatly reduced prices, of a consignment of fine Bordeaux wines, because the dates on the labels looked so old.

On his return to England he was senior physician at the Middlesex, with a concurrent part-time senior lectureship in pharmacology (1980 to 1985). This reflected his interest in therapeutics, and he was a member of the editorial committee of the British National Formulary and, from 1976 to 1983, he was first a member, and then chairman, of the editorial committee of the Prescribers’ Journal. He continued to travel to Nigeria, Sudan and Singapore as an external examiner for the College (he had been assistant registrar from 1972 to 1976, was censor from 1985 to 1987 and the College’s representative on the council of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists), also examining for the universities of Liverpool and Ghana. From 1980 to 1985 he was also a civil consultant to the Royal Air Force, in which he had done his National Service soon after qualifying (he especially enjoyed observing Operation Lionheart from a helicopter over the Rhine), and from 1972 for nearly 20 years he was chief medical officer to the Legal and General Assurance Society.

This was a period of great change in the world of hospital medicine and the NHS. Between 1980 and 1985 he was successively a member and chair of the North East Kensington, Chelsea and Westminster and (from 1982) Bloomsbury district management teams, after the boards of governors of teaching hospitals were abolished. He disliked the inevitable distraction from clinical work that sitting on committees meant, but was an effective and respected chairman. The Todd report and the mergers of the hospitals caused deep local unrest. It was perhaps a good thing that when he died he was unaware that the Middlesex had finally been closed the previous week.

In 1985, after slow recovery from an accident in which he was hit on a pedestrian crossing, he joined the Wellcome Trust as assistant director, with particular responsibility for administering clinical projects, lectureships and fellowships. He then moved to the King’s Fund to run a project on staffing and undergraduate medical education, also coordinating postgraduate placements for medical students on Commonwealth scholarships. In 1989 he joined a study funded by the Rockefeller Foundation of curricular reform in therapeutics at University College and Middlesex School of Medicine (UCMSM). He was elected to the Worshipful Company of Apothecaries, and became a trustee of the Jules Thorn Trust in 1981, reviewing medical research projects for funding.

Despite so full a professional life, Peter Ball spent as much time as possible walking in the hills, establishing and maintaining ponds and a woodland in his large garden, fly-fishing and wildfowling on the Spey and the Wash and in Devon, reading very widely and collecting books and prints. It all came to an abrupt end in December 1991 when he suffered a debilitating haemorrhagic stroke, which left him wheelchair-bound, unable to read and with greatly restricted speech. This did not deter him from trying to fish left-handed from his wheelchair (with occasional success), and becoming the subject of his speech therapist’s paper on aphasia. His wife Anne, whom he married in 1952, died in 1992, just after he came home from hospital, and, supported at home by his family and full-time carers, he spent 14 long years of incapacity and decreasing strength, ended by a further stroke in his sleep.

Jenifer Ball

[Brit.med.J., 2006 332 798]

(Volume XII, page web)

<< Back to List