Lives of the fellows

Peter Barry Brontë Gatenby

b.2 November 1923 d.24 August 2015
BA Dubl(1944) MB BCh(1946) MRCPI(1948) MRCP(1949) MD(1949) FRCPI(1955) FRCP(1964) Hon FRCP Edin Hon FACP

Peter Brontë Gatenby was the first full-time professor of medicine at Trinity College Dublin and medical director of the United Nations medical service. Born in Dublin, he was the son of James Brontë Gatenby, professor of zoology at Trinity College, and Enid (‘Molly’) Meade, from a well-known Dublin family. He was educated at Sandford Park School and St Andrew’s College. He studied medicine at Trinity College Dublin, where he had a brilliant undergraduate career, graduating in 1946. After junior posts in Dublin and London, in 1953 he joined the staff of Dr Steevens’ Hospital, Dublin, as a consultant physician. Four years later, he was also appointed as a consultant physician to the Meath Hospital. In addition, he served as visiting physician to the Rotunda Hospital.

In 1957 he joined a group of influential and like-minded consultants with the purpose of amalgamating the small voluntary hospitals associated with Trinity College. Long and tedious negotiations bore fruit with the passing of the Hospital Federation and Amalgamation Act in 1961. He then played a key role with others to persuade these hospitals to move towards amalgamation. Their efforts eventually led to the closure of the hospitals and to the creation of two new major teaching hospitals, St James's Hospital and Tallaght Hospital.

In 1960 Gatenby was appointed to the first full-time chair of medicine at Trinity College. The resources given to him were, to say the least meager – a secretary and the use of outpatient rooms, for three afternoons a week, which had been originally constructed for the ENT surgeon Oliver St John Gogarty. Looking back to that time, one of his successors to the chair of medicine reflected: ‘It is difficult at this stage to realise the enormity of the task that he took on, and the debt of gratitude owed to him by Trinity and its future generations of both undergraduate and postgraduate students.’

Gatenby was awarded a Rockefeller travelling fellowship to the United States in 1960 and this gave him the opportunity to visit several leading academic units in American medical schools. At Meath Hospital he began to gather around him a team of young and dynamic consultants to develop both teaching and research, and he obtained grants to support young research fellows. Gatenby’s own research concentrated on anaemia in pregnancy and he published seminal papers on iron deficiency anaemia and megaloblastic anaemia in leading journals such as the Lancet and the British Medical Journal.

Gatenby was a superb bedside teacher and students from all the Dublin medical schools flocked to his teaching sessions at Dr Steevens’ Hospital. He was a good listener and was very supportive of individuals experiencing difficulties. He was always positive and encouraging. When asked later in his life how he would like to be remembered he answered ‘as a good teacher’. He kept himself up to date by regular visits to leading teaching hospitals on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1969 he was awarded a World Health Organization (WHO) fellowship to visit leading haematological centres in France and in 1972 he spent time in New York as visiting professor of medicine at the University of Rochester. He also became familiar with the challenges of medicine in developing countries, and in 1966 and 1970 he was a WHO consultant and visiting professor of medicine at Maulana Azad Medical College in Delhi, India.

In 1974 Gatenby left Ireland for New York to take up the position of medical director of the United Nations medical service. A year later he was also appointed visiting professor of clinical medicine in New York University. As medical director he was involved in the supervision of the medical services in United Nations missions throughout the world. It involved frequent travel to areas of conflict and famine. In 1982 he moved to Rome, where he was chief medical officer of the Food and Agriculture Organization. He retired from this post in 1987 and returned to Dublin however, in 1994, he served once more with the United Nations when he was asked to accept the post of international civilian physician to the United Nations Protection Force at Zagreb in former Yugoslavia for six months.

When Gatenby retired to Dublin he became very involved in supporting the development of the medical school at Trinity. He travelled to England and the United States to encourage graduates of the medical school to contribute funding for the development of a new teaching centre at St James's Hospital. In 2002 the medical school established the Peter Gatenby prize ‘in recognition of his selfless commitment and contribution to the school of medicine’. He was awarded honorary fellowships of the American College of Physicians and of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. He was also an honorary fellow of Trinity College Dublin.

He wrote two books, The School of Physic, Trinity College Dublin: a retrospective view (Dublin, Faculty of Health Sciences, Trinity College Dublin) which was published in 1994 and Dublin’s Meath Hospital 1753-1996 (Dublin, Town House), which was published two years later.

During his retirement he made a major commitment to charitable and voluntary groups such as the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Ireland and Guide Dogs for the Blind. He was a man of great energy and enthusiasm and attended meetings in Trinity and the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland up to a short period before his death.

Peter was proud of his family connection with the Brontë family. He was descended from a brother of Patrick Brontë, father of the writers Charlotte, Emily and Anne. In his later years he enjoyed giving talks on the Irish roots of the Brontë family in County Down and he was pleased to be invited to lecture at Haworth, the Yorkshire home of the Brontës. Despite his many achievements, he was understated and self-effacing. Humorous and a great raconteur, he got on well with people irrespective of culture and background. He was gentle and sensitive and was much loved by all who knew him. He left his mark on a generation of medical students who remember him fondly.

Peter Gatenby was predeceased by his wife Yvette (née Bonnet), a French artist and musician whom he had married in 1951, and his daughter Odette. He was survived by his son Robin, who is in general practice in Scotland, and by his six grandchildren.

Davis Coakley

[Trinity College Dublin Trinity News and Events ‘Trinity Community Mourns the Death of Peter Gatenby, Hon FTCD’ 26 August 2015 – accessed 7 March 2016; BMJ 2015 351 6855 – accessed 7 March 2016]

(Volume XII, page web)

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