Lives of the fellows

Peter Joseph Scheuer

b.15 November 1928 d.1 March 2006
MB BS Lond(1954) MD(1962) MRCPath(1963) FRCPath(1976) DSc(1986) Hon FRCP(2006)

Peter Scheuer was one of the leading hepatopathologists of his generation. Following the emergence of liver biopsy as a major clinical investigative procedure in the 1940s and 1950s, Peter was a major figure in developing the science of liver biopsy interpretation. Appointed as lecturer in morbid anatomy in the department of pathology at the Royal Free Hospital in 1959 and commencing his duties on the same day Sheila Sherlock [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XI, p.514] took up her position as professor of medicine, Peter was to provide a superb diagnostic hepatopathology service for the medical unit. The result was the establishment of the Royal Free as one of the world's leading centres for the investigation of liver disease. Sheila Sherlock freely acknowledged her indebtedness to her pathology colleagues and these sentiments were generously reciprocated.

Peter was born in Hamburg in to Jewish Viennese parents, the youngest of a family of four children. Although the Scheuers were members of the Lutheran church, this was no help against the growing power of the Nazis as the authorities were concerned with ethnic origins rather than religious beliefs or observance. By 1937 both his brothers had been expelled from school because they were Jewish and the family returned to Vienna to escape the growing Nazi menace. After the annexation of Austria by the Nazis in March 1938 the family situation was worse and they all had to make good their escape as individuals and not as a whole family. Peter and his mother joined his father in England in December 1938, their visa having one day left to run on their departure. In 1947 he completed his secondary education at Abbotsholme School in Derbyshire and obtained a laboratory technician post at Bromley Cottage Hospital, where the consultant in charge, John Keall, encouraged him to consider medicine as a career. Studying on a part-time basis in London, he gained a higher school certificate in zoology and was admitted to the Royal Free School of Medicine in 1949, one of 12 males among some 80 females in the year.

He passed his finals in May 1954 and, after house jobs at the Royal Free and St John’s, Newfoundland, was conscripted to the Royal Army Medical Corps, spending two years in Singapore. In the Army he continued to develop his interest in laboratory medicine and rose to the rank of captain. He returned to a senior house officer post in pathology at the Royal Free, where the head of the department, Kenneth Hill [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.239], encouraged him to take an interest in research, suggesting either heart or liver disease as suitable subjects. Peter chose the liver and proceeded to complete an MD degree in 1961 on laboratory aspects of veno-occlusive disease of the liver. In 1962 he obtained a British Postgraduate Federation fellowship and spent a year with Hans Popper at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. Hans, himself a Jewish refugee from Vienna, was already regarded as the world’s foremost liver pathologist and Peter returned from New York to the post of lecturer with a broader vision and with new experience gained away from the Royal Free.

His career blossomed. He obtained a personal chair in clinical histopathology and in September 1983 was appointed professor of histopathology and head of department at the Royal Free, a post he held until his retirement in September 1992. He was the first male graduate of the school to become a consultant at the Royal Free and the first to hold a chair.

In 1968 Peter published the first edition of Liver biopsy interpretation (London, Balliere, Tindall & Cassell), a brief but concisely written text of great clarity. It became the essential bench book for general histopathologists worldwide, such that liver biopsies became less of a chore and more of a challenge and, indeed, of consummate interest. After his retirement from the Royal Free in 1992 his opinion continued to be sought and his work recognised. He continued to work on his book, the last three editions being written conjointly with Jay Lefkowitch of Columbia University, New York. The seventh edition was published in 2005 and, in November of the same year, it gave him great pleasure to present a copy to the College at a private ceremony when he was admitted by the President, Dame Carol Black, to full fellowship.

Peter was the prototype ideal teacher, both head to head at the microscope and as a lecturer, combining an elegant, clear presentation with a didactic approach, logical reasoning and a comprehensive, yet succinct, description and masterful use of English. His ability to use one slide to illustrate a number of points adequately was unsurpassed. He was an erudite discussant in debates on difficult cases or controversial scientific issues. He was a member of the 'Gnomes', a group of pathologists and clinicians who first met informally at the second meeting of the recently formed European Association of the Study of the Liver in Gothenburg in 1967. They met again in 1968 in Zurich and their paper, ‘A classification of chronic hepatitis’ (The Lancet, 1968 Sept 14;2[7568]:626-8) became a citation classic. The paper owed much to Scheuer's skilled drafting of the deliberation and discussions by the group. The name 'Gnomes' was of Sheila Sherlock's choosing, describing the group as manipulating the nomenclature of liver disease in a way similar to the 'Gnomes of Zurich', the bankers of Europe who manipulated Europe's finances. In addition to his superb ability as a lecturer and author he was also an outstanding reviewer and editor who made numerous contributions to textbooks and monographs. He was co-editor of Pathology of the liver (4th edition, London, Churchill Livingstone, 2001) and is the recognised textbook in this discipline.

He ran a friendly and supportive department at the Royal Free and was held in the highest regard by all his colleagues and, with growing international recognition, by the numerous fellows and senior visitors, clinicians and pathologists who came for a sabbatical period. He took on additional duties, vice dean of the medical school, member of council at the Royal College of Pathologists, president of the British Association for the Study of the Liver and, on retirement, a trustee of the British Liver Trust. There were other posts, which he decided to avoid, ‘My priorities were the department, liver pathology and the medical school’, he said.

Outside pathology, Peter's major interest was music. From the beginning music played an important part in his family. He started violin lessons in 1937 and continued this interest at school and while studying medicine he attended classes at the London College of Music. While in Singapore, he started cello lessons and soon became an accomplished performer, playing in an amateur orchestra and in piano trios and string quartets. In 1960 he married Louise Withington, a post-doctoral fellow in the department of anatomy at the Royal Free. An accomplished pianist, she shared his musical interest, and, indeed, they first met at the medical school’s music society. After retirement, playing chamber music became a very important part of his life.

Peter achieved world fame as a histopathologist bringing distinction to himself, his medical school and British pathology. He was a reserved person of a sober, wholly civilised lifestyle, but behind that was a man proud of his academic status with high moral principles, who valued his friendships and was never too busy to help and to share his knowledge with others. He spoke ill of nobody and always displayed a light touch, which brought his friends and colleagues closer to his own liberal and cultural European tradition. He is survived by his wife Louise, his two sons Robert and Edward, and three grand-daughters.

Roddy MacSween
Jim McLaughlin

[Brit. Liver Trust, Bulletin 10, May 2006; Brit. med. J., 2006, 332, 1455; Roy. Coll. Path. Bulletin 136, 53, Oct. 2006; The Lancet 2006, 367, 2054; The Independent 11 May 2006; The Guardian 13 June 2006]

(Volume XII, page web)

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