Lives of the fellows

Peter Julius Denison Heaf

b.24 February 1922 d.11 June 2009
OBE MB BS Lond(1946) MD(1952) MRCP(1954) FRCP(1965)

Peter Heaf was a consultant chest physician at University College Hospital (UCH), London, and a very talented diagnostician, teacher and investigator. In his retirement, he did much to help veterans of the first Gulf War and acted as medical adviser to the parliamentary group investigating ‘Gulf War syndrome’. He was born into a medical family: his father, Frederick Roland George Heaf [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.229], was a chest physician before him and achieved eminence for his work developing the ‘Heaf test’, a skin test to check immunity to tuberculosis. His mother was Madeleine née Denison. Peter started his medical training in 1940, during the Second World War, at the University College Hospital medical school, which had been evacuated to Bangor, north Wales. In 1941, he moved to Leatherhead, where he met another medical student, Rosemary Cartledge, at a medical school party. She taught him to knit as a party game. In 1942 Peter moved to UCH in Gower Street, London, to complete his clinical training and he qualified in 1946.

His lifelong interest in chest medicine started almost by default: his first house job was at UCH and, because his father was a well-known chest physician there, it was thought he would best be suited to the chest ward. In 1947, he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps for his National Service. And, because of his previous experience in chest medicine, he was sent to a TB hospital in Surrey.

After National Service, Peter became a research assistant at the Brompton Hospital in London, in the respiratory physiology department with Francis Prime. Here he published the first of many papers. Throughout his career, Peter was a keen researcher. Perhaps the most notable of a long list of publications was a paper published with Sir Richard Doll [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web] in the British Medical Journal highlighting an increase in asthma deaths during the 1960s relating to the introduction of the isoprenaline inhaler (Brit.med.J., 1968 Feb10;1[5588]:339-43). This paper changed the management of asthma and heralded the use of selective inhaled beta-agonists.

In 1955, he became a senior registrar at St Thomas’ Hospital. He was appointed as a consultant at UCH in 1958, where he became a highly respected clinician and teacher. Many of the doctors who were taught by him during their training found Peter an inspiring teacher. He was immensely practical, as shown by his inventiveness with equipment at the Brompton during his MD studies. He was an accomplished rigid bronchoscopist, but one day he spied a junior colleague on the wards carrying out a fibreoptic bronchoscopy at the bedside. He gently took over the instrument with great excitement, despite being warned he needed at least 50 supervised practices before ‘flying solo’. Of course, he passed the scope with ease and was so impressed with the optics and its ease of access, the rigid instrument virtually disappeared henceforth.

He was chair of the UCH medical committee for several years, where he gave wise counsel and was a visionary for the future, realising the need for a new build as soon as possible.

After his retirement from UCH in 1986, his medical work did not stop. He had a long affiliation with the British Legion, and worked as the leader of a team of senior medical consultants who reviewed the medical records of ex-servicemen and women preparing medical evidence for War Pensions Tribunals. The extraordinary level of success achieved by the British Legion was largely due to the medical evidence provided by Peter and his team.

Following the first Gulf War (1990 to 1991), it was noted that over 10% of the British forces deployed in the Middle East became unwell. This came to be known as ‘Gulf War syndrome’. Initially the Ministry of Defence and the press were skeptical about this illness, and they gave a mainly cynical response to the veteran’s claims. The British Legion was approached by a group of senior parliamentarians requesting the setting up a formal group to look at Gulf War syndrome. Peter acted as principal medical adviser to the Parliamentary Gulf War Group. He analysed dozens of extensive reports, converting the findings into a language that lay people could understand, and attended many meetings for the Legion, including those with ministers. Peter’s award of the OBE for services to the ex-service community recognised the huge contribution he made to the well-being of veterans of all ages.

Outside medicine, he had a wide interest in art, music and history. In retirement, he became an accomplished painter, mainly in water-colours. He had a profound knowledge and love of classical music and frequented opera and concerts for many years. He had a thirst for history and was a wonderful raconteur. During the 1970s, he and his family moved to Wallingford, to a large house backing onto the Thames. Visiting was always a great pleasure and their garden a work of art and industry. Both Peter and his wife, Rosemary, a former consultant cytopathologist at UCH, were expert gardeners and their skills were much admired. Sadly, Rosemary died just some months after Peter, and they leave four children (Nicholas, David, Joanna and Madhu), two of whom are doctors. A granddaughter is also a doctor, the fourth generation of Heafs to enter medicine.

Stephen Spiro

[Brit.med.J.,2010 340 1941]

(Volume XII, page web)

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