Lives of the fellows

David Asher Persoff

b.8 October 1931 d.16 December 2009
BSc Lond(1955) MSc(1959) MB BS(1961) MRCP(1969) FRCP(1982)

David Persoff was a consultant physician at St Andrew’s Hospital, Bow, London. He was born in London, the second of six children of Mark and Sarah Persoff. As a child he was determined to become a doctor. He had a reputation for conducting scientific experiments at home, with only occasional fire damage to the curtains. He spent the duration of the Second World War as an evacuee. Returning to London, he was educated at Letchworth Grammar School, Willesden County Grammar School, and Chelsea College of Science and Technology. He excelled at school and developed his interest in science.

Straight from school he undertook his National Service with the 14th/20th Hussars. He then wanted to enter medical school, but because of the backlog of applicants who had deferred their studies he first studied general science. Examiners commented on the exceptional standard of his master’s degree. He spent a year as an industrial chemist before studying medicine at the London Hospital Medical School. As an undergraduate, he was proud to have delivered around 50 babies, including some (quite difficult) home deliveries.

After house officer posts at the London Hospital and Hammersmith, and a senior house officer post at Whittington Hospital, he was a medical registrar at Atkinson Morley’s Hospital and an assistant lecturer and lecturer at St George’s Hospital Medical School. In 1973 he was appointed as a consultant physician at St Andrew’s Hospital, London, and two years later became an honorary lecturer at the London Hospital Medical College.

Persoff was typical of those who saw themselves as a 'scientist physician'. This was rooted in his early laboratory work, published in Nature (‘Movements of potassium in rabbit auricles’ Nature 1958 Aug 30;182[4635]:605-6) and the Journal of Physiology (‘A comparison of methods for measuring efflux of labelled potassium from contracting rabbit atria’ J Physiol 1960 Jul:152:354-66) – which was done well and clearly written. Moving to clinical work, at the Hammersmith Hospital his case reports of recovery after prolonged oliguria in acute glomerulonephritis contributed to the reassessment that this was not necessarily fatal. Anxious to link the ward and the laboratory, for many years he maintained a laboratory near his office in St Andrew's Hospital, and he kept his clinical knowledge brushed up by critical assessment of the evidence. But his appointment to a consultant post in a district general hospital was for him a misfortune, demanding a lifestyle he found it difficult to adapt to and an environment in which only superhuman dedication or access to substantial funding could have realised his vision, when only the most prestigious units could advance clinical science and survive. But he could turn his critical eye to any idea, which colleagues appreciated in electing him as chairman of the medical advisory committee, where, while not naturally a collaborator, he could turn his mind to management decisions and would offer a withering commentary on ill-thought out proposals.

Persoff organised the teaching at St Andrew’s of medical students from the London Hospital Medical College, promoting an academic link which was further developed by his successors, such that the hospital which succeeded St Andrew’s is now linked to Bart’s and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry as Newham University Hospital. He encouraged a registrar rotation between St Andrew's Hospital and the London Hospital Medical College before other Newham hospitals had even the smallest internal rotation, paving the way for improved junior doctor training at all hospitals in the district when Newham University Hospital opened in June 1983. This involved adjusting to a very different pattern of consultant work when consultants with various sessions at seven small hospitals and clinics came together into a single on-call rota.

He enjoyed the challenge of private practice in Harley Street, where he was particularly respected for his warm and courteous dealings with patients. He was aware that the welfare of patients depended as much on the common sense of a well-informed generalist doctor as on the specialist skills of others, to whom he referred when appropriate.

He also became heavily involved in medico-legal work, instructed by a wide range of solicitors including those who acted for a number of trade unions. He obtained satisfaction from helping people obtain appropriate compensation for their injuries, such as those resulting from accidents such as the Zeebrugge ferry, the King's Cross fire and the Clapham Junction train collision.

Persoff was a polymath, able to recite poems and tracts of literature off by heart, a master of computers, and a skilled and innovative photographer. Ill-health forced him to retire from NHS practice, but his strong religious faith continued to give him strength, as it had throughout his life. He died during the festival of Chanukah, the Jewish festival of lights. He was survived by his wife Rivka, sons Mark and Simon, and grandson Reuben.

Jeannette Meadway
David Littlejohns
Mark Persoff

(Volume XII, page web)

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