Lives of the fellows

John Harold (Sir) Peel

b.10 December 1904 d.31 December 2005
KCVO BA Oxon(1928) MRCS LRCP (1930) BM BCh(1932) MA(1932) FRCS(1933) MRCOG(1934) FRCOG(1944) Hon FRCS Canada(1967) Hon FCM South Africa(1968) Hon FACS(1970) Hon FRCP(1971) Hon DSc Birm(1972) Hon DSc Southampton(1974) Hon DCh Newcastle(1980) Hon FRCOG(1989)

Sir John Peel, surgeon-gynaecologist to the Queen and former president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), was a remarkable man who throughout his long life made a significant contribution to medicine generally and to obstetrics and gynaecology in particular.

John Peel had originally intended to study classics, but, while standing on the railway platform at Widnes, Lancashire, made a sudden decision to change his career plans. He had excelled at classics at Manchester Grammar School and was preparing to go up to Queen’s College, Oxford, to study the subject. Thinking about his future, as he recalled, he decided that with a degree in classics he would probably end up teaching. This did not appeal, so he considered other possible professions and chose medicine. In the enlightened days of the 1920s Queen’s was quite happy for him to make the change and their confidence in him was rewarded when he took a first in natural sciences, before going on to King’s College Hospital for his clinical training. This was the start of a lifelong association with King’s, where he worked for almost all of his professional life. Whilst doing his house jobs he decided to specialise in obstetrics and gynaecology, and thereafter made his way seamlessly up to a junior consultant appointment in the King’s department in 1936. He had meanwhile obtained his FRCS in 1933 and MRCOG in 1934. He soon built a large public and private consulting practice – the latter being important in those days when consultant appointments to teaching hospitals were honorary.

When the second world war came most King’s departments were evacuated to the country, but the obstetric department remained at Denmark Hill and continued to care for pregnant women and deliver their babies in the basement of the main hospital. Because of his surgical qualifications and experience, John Peel dealt with the surgical needs of all the air raid casualties that came into King’s and often spent many hours in the operating theatre.

After the war his association with Sir William Gilliatt led to his involvement with the Royal Family. He assisted Gilliatt at the birth of the Prince of Wales and Princess Anne. After Gilliatt was killed in a car crash in 1956 John took on his role as surgeon-gynaecologist to HM the Queen and delivered Prince Andrew, Prince Edward and Princess Margaret’s two children, Viscount Linley and Lady Sarah Armstrong Jones. He was knighted by the Queen after the birth of Prince Andrew.

He took an early interest in the affairs of the RCOG, being elected to the fellowship in 1944 and to its council in 1955. Four years later he became honorary treasurer, a post he held until he was elected president in 1966. The three years of his presidency spanned the introduction of abortion law reform, culminating in the Abortion Law Reform Act in 1967. The college council, over which John presided, contained a number of distinguished gynaecologists who were deeply unhappy with the proposed new law. The balanced college view that emerged owed much to John’s skilful handing of the council, where arguments were often very strong and passions high. His skill as a chairman was widely recognised. He chaired two important departmental committees, as well as many committees at King’s, where he chaired the main medical committee at a time when he was also president of the RCOG. He managed to combine his committee work with a busy clinical practice, undergraduate and postgraduate teaching, fundraising for the RCOG and King’s, as well as his own research work, only by dint of extremely hard work.

His research was mainly on the management of the pregnant diabetic. Working with Wilfred Oakley [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XI, p.424] over many years they reduced the hitherto high perinatal mortality to near normal non-diabetic levels. After he retired he was asked by Edward Heath to sit on the economic and social committee, which scrutinised EEC directives on a wide range of subjects. For five years he made monthly visits to Brussels and, perhaps not surprisingly, ended up as the committee’s chairman.

When not at work, John enjoyed the country life on his farm in Wiltshire, where he raised a fine herd of Friesian cows. His great passion was fishing and he spent many holidays fishing on the Spey and the Test. He was an accomplished fisherman and his close colleagues at King’s knew that if he had a good year on the Spey they could look forward to a share of the spoils. He continued to fish well into his nineties.

A quiet man of few words, he was an avid reader and when he spoke he showed a wide range of knowledge and interest in many subjects. John Peel married three times. His first marriage, to Muriel Pellow, was short and ended in divorce. His second marriage, to Freda Mellish, who had been one of his ward sisters, was long and happy and lasted until she died in 1993. Two years later, at the age of 91, he married Sally Barton, a cousin, who was devoted to John and Freda, who were her godparents. During the last ten years, with great support from Sally, he was amazingly active, travelling a great deal and fishing whenever he got the opportunity. Both King’s and the RCOG gave him well-attended commemorative lunches to celebrate his 100th birthday. On each occasion he made a polished speech, which made those present quite forget that he was 100 years old. His final illness was relatively short and he died at home of cardiac failure, three weeks after his 101st birthday. His funeral service was attended by many younger former colleagues and friends, as well as a representative from HM the Queen and from HRH the Prince of Wales.

J M Brudenell

[Brit.med.J.,2006,332,366]

(Volume XII, page web)

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