Lives of the fellows

Peter Matthew Higgins

b.18 June 1923 d.10 June 2010
OBE(1987) MB BS Lond(1947) MRCP(1953) FRCGP(1975) FRCP(1977)

Peter Matthew Higgins was professor of general practice at Guy’s Hospital Medical School. Working as a general practitioner (GP) in a challenging environment for over 30 years, he was ahead of his time both in seeing the need for vocational training for GPs and in stressing the advantages of purpose built health centres.

Born in England, he was the son of Peter Joseph Higgins, a teacher. Educated at St Ignatius’ College in Enfield, North London, he studied medicine at University College London and University College Hospital (UCH). He qualified in 1947 and worked at UCH where he was house physician to Sir Harold Himsworth [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.238] before joining the RAMC the following year.

On demobilisation in 1949, he returned to St Pancras Hospital and continued various house jobs becoming assistant medical registrar in 1953. He then moved, as a GP, to Rugeley, a mining village in Staffordshire, and also worked at Castle Vale, a new housing development in Birmingham. It was experience in these two areas which was to influence his thinking on the links between social deprivation and illness.

He returned to London in 1968, as a senior lecturer in general practice at Guy’s Hospital Medical School, and was asked to set up a teaching practice in Thamesmead, which was a new London County Council development aiming to house some 60,000 people. In spite of having to work initially from a hut and single handed, he relished the chance, as he wrote, ‘to develop a comprehensive health service with a special emphasis on primary care for a large population in a capital city and also provide a teaching unit in the community for Guy’s medical and dental students.’ He published two papers on the topic, some years later, ‘Thamesmead: dream to reality’ (BMJ. 1982, 285, 564) and ‘Thamesmead: lessons learnt’ (BMJ, 1982, 285, 1631). By the time these papers were published there were six GPs in the practice who all also taught at Guy’s and the purpose built health centre, Lakeside, housed a community dental service and provided consultant clinics in psychiatry, surgery, paediatrics, dermatology, gynaecology and rheumatology as well as offering a counselling service.

In 1974 he was appointed Bernard Sunley professor of general practice at Guy’s and alongside his work there, he was regional advisor in general practice for the South East Thames Region from 1970 and vice-chairman of the South East Thames Area Health Authority from 1976. He also served on the attendance allowance board and was a trustee of the Thamesmead Community Association and a former president of the general practice section of the Royal Society of Medicine.

A pioneer in his approach to the training of GPs, he encouraged his practice students to visit the patients in their own homes. Staff at Lakeside were advised to group the medical notes of families together in large folders and encouraged to draw out family trees. His wife said of him that he ‘felt strongly that you could not learn about general practice from reading a book’. Awarded the OBE in 1987, he retired the following year but always maintained a keen interest in Thamesmead and wrote the preface to Thamesmead: a social history by Valerie Wigfall (London, Thamesmead Trust, 2009 ).

Outside medicine he enjoyed playing the piano and listening to music, he also liked reading and playing squash.

In 1952, he married Jean Margaret née Lindsay, a doctor’s daughter and a qualified nurse and midwife whom he met when they were both at UCH. They had three sons and a daughter. When he died from bronchopneumonia, dementia and old age, Jean and his family survived him.

RCP editor

[BMJ 2011 342 2365]

(Volume XII, page web)

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