Lives of the fellows

Peter John Preston

b.2 March 1923 d.10 December 2005
OBE MRCS LRCP(1945) DCH(1946) MRCP(1958) DTMH(1959) FRCP(1972)

Peter Preston, who ended his career as medical officer in charge of the Royal Naval Hospital, Stonehouse, Plymouth, was a naval doctor with a difference. Wherever he went during his service career he took a practical interest in the health needs of the local population. He was awarded the OBE for his work with the medical school of the Royal University of Malta, and for helping the local civilian population.

Medicine was in Peter’s blood. His great grandfather had been the first medical director at Stonehouse. His grandfather was one of the first doctors in Hong Kong, and one of his great uncles was a doctor in Macau. His father, William, had served in France as an infantry officer during the First World War and had hoped to follow the family tradition and become a doctor. But once the war was over he found he had to support his younger sisters and could not afford to complete the full medical course. He became a dentist instead.

Peter’s education was interrupted by the Second World War. Eastbourne College was evacuated to Radley and for a time Charing Cross Medical School found a temporary home in Birmingham. As a medical student he responded to an appeal in a daily paper for anyone to come forward who had knowledge of the Normandy coast. Peter had spent many holidays there, so he volunteered to be landed by submarine with commandos to guide them to caves where they could hide out and do their work before the invasion.

Graduating from Charing Cross Hospital Medical School, he was awarded the governors’ clinical gold medal in his final year. He first served as a house officer at Great Ormond Street Hospital and the London Chest Hospital. He was then a resident medical officer and thoracic registrar at the Hackney Road Children’s Hospital.

In 1948 he joined the Royal Navy as a surgeon lieutenant and from then on had a distinguished career in home and overseas appointments. Home appointments included service in the naval hospitals at Chatham, Haslar and Stonehouse, but, interspersed with his naval duties, Peter served as medical registrar to Sir Cyril Clarke [Munk’s Roll, Vol. XI, p.112], professor of medicine, Broadgreen Hospital, Liverpool, where he also studied tropical medicine. Overseas appointments included postings in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Hong Kong and Malta.

He was particularly interested in infectious diseases, tuberculosis, paediatrics, pathology, neonatology and electro-encephalography. He was a member of the British Society for Antimicrobial Therapy and a fellow of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. Many of his papers were published in the BMJ, the Transcripts of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, and in the Journal of the Royal Navy Medical Service.

While serving as a medical specialist at the Admiralty Medical Board, Peter had the temerity to cross swords with the First Sea Lord, Admiral Earl Mountbatten of Burma. He had sent along his Royal Marine chauffeur who had persistent colds. Peter said the man must wear an overcoat in the evenings; but he was told that this would not be smart enough. Peter replied that he would not deign to tell Mountbatten how to bring a destroyer alongside and that his medical opinion should be respected: the marine got his overcoat. When Peter was promoted to surgeon commander he had a telegram of congratulation signed ‘Dr’ Mountbatten.

Peter was a great supporter of the College, attending courses on advanced medicine and speaking at some of the teach-ins. He was the College’s professor of naval medicine from 1972 to 1976, and was among the first service professors to organise postgraduate training for his naval medical specialists and the first to seek the advice of the Linacre Fellow, Dame Albertine Winner [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VIII, p.546] after the first JCHMT report was published. He also encouraged his brother-in-law, Michael Tibbs, to apply for the post of College Secretary in 1968.

Peter was a talented actor. As a student he joined the Birmingham Repertory Company to help pay his way and played alongside Vivien Leigh. During his postings abroad, he performed to large numbers as Thomas a Beckett in both Malta and Hong Kong cathedrals. (He even succeeded in borrowing the robes of the Cardinal Archbishop of Malta!) He also used his acting skills as a doctor – the crew of HMS Mauritius, flagship of the eastern fleet, were mystified by a sailor who turned up and slung his hammock on the mess deck for a voyage from Ceylon to the Gulf. This was Peter finding out the actual conditions under which the sailors lived in tropical conditions.

After leaving the Navy Peter returned to Hong Kong as the university’s professor of postgraduate medicine. Here he not only arranged postgraduate training throughout south east Asia, but encouraged and kept in touch with the young doctors. He held frequent seminars with them, while and he and his wife, Ann, were very hospitable to these young people, many away from home for the first time. Ann, an occupational therapist, worked in a special school for handicapped children, many of whom had been locked away by their parents. Peter and Ann made several visits to China – a breakthrough in those days – where Peter’s willingness to share medical knowledge was appreciated. He was also very interested in the work and knowledge of the ‘bare foot doctors’.

He retired to Bradpole in Dorset, where Peter emptied his medical bag and replaced his medical instruments with DIY tools. His special interest and skill was in sculpture, particularly fine wooden carvings. He was an accomplished water colourist and many pictures of the Far East adorn the walls of the cottage. He loved music, natural history, Dorset and walking with Sam, his black labrador. He read avidly, from history to philosophy, but also made time to be involved with village life, where he chaired the parish council for some years.

Peter Preston leaves his dearly loved Annie, to whom he was married for 53 years, his sons John, Anthony and Tom, and six grandchildren. His influence will prevail in different parts of the world for a long time to come.

Michael Tibbs

(Volume XII, page web)

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