Lives of the fellows

Peter John Congdon

b.15 August 1944 d.28 March 1987
MB ChB Leeds(1970) DCH(1972) MRCP(1973) FRCP(1987)

Peter Congdon was born in London, but from his entry to medical school until his death he lived and worked in Yorkshire. There were no medical precedents in his family; his father, Henry Congdon, was a civil servant who died when Peter was only two years old. Thereafter his mother was the breadwinner and her three children had to take considerable responsibilities from an early age. This background surely underlay two of Peter’s most endearing qualities: he was a devoted father and a generous giver of time and money to those who needed his help.

He graduated in 1970 and undertook his pre-registration posts in Harrogate. Paediatrics was his chosen specialty from the start, but he also held posts in obstetrics and adult medicine while working for his DCH and MRCP diplomas. Registrar posts followed, in Hull and Leeds, and marriage to Helena who had been in the same year at medical school. They had three children, two sons and a daughter. In 1975 he spent a year at the Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto, Canada, where he first encountered the higher technology of neonatal care which he was to introduce so successfully to Leeds; first as a senior registrar, then as a consultant neonatologist, and ultimately in the splendid new neonatal unit of the Clarendon Wing of the Leeds General Infirmary.

As so often happens, once consultant status is achieved, the sleepless nights of neonatal ‘on-call’ diminished and - the demands of higher specialist training satisfied - Peter Congdon developed an interest in research, an ability to attract research funds and research fellows, and a facility for turning team work into scientific publications. His interest lay in the practical problems of neonatal care, notably in the fields of infection, intracranial haemorrhage and osteopaenia of prematurity. In this last subject he worked closely with the MRC mineral metabolism research unit in adapting the technique of photon absorptiometry to the small bones of preterm babies.

The clinical service for sick newborns which Peter Congdon established, and which involved the closest collaboration with obstetricians, paediatric surgeons and paediatric anaesthetists, was used- with gratitude - by paediatricians throughout the Yorkshire region and beyond. He contributed a high degree of technical expertise, a great sense of personal responsibility, and a constant awareness of the emotional strains which sick newborns impose upon parents and staff alike.

Administrative affairs outside his own unit gave him no pleasure, and medico-political wrangling nauseated him. He took his turn as chairman of the district division of paediatrics and spent long hours finding out how the NHS machine worked (or was supposed to work) and who was responsible for what.

Peter liked to be available to his staff and there was little scope for leisure activities. As a boy he was a middle distance runner for the south London schools. As a student he played rugby for the medical school. He was a member of the Yorkshire County Cricket Club and a keen supporter of the team at Headingley. But his relaxations were largely domestic and he particularly enjoyed gardening.

Peter Congdon was a complex character; deeply conscientious, acknowledged by his peers as an outstanding clinician in his field, he never achieved self-confidence and often seemed ill at ease with himself. Diffidence sometimes edged perilously close to paranoia and caused his colleagues considerable anxiety. Few people would subscribe wholeheartedly to the prayer of Robert Burns ’O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us/To see oursels as others see us !’, but Peter’s friends prayed fervently and frequently that he might recognize the high professional regard in which he was held, lower his defences, and redirect his nervous energies into his more constructive pursuits. The packed church at his funeral bore testimony to their regard but one could sense Peter, with a wry smile, saying ‘They're only here from a sense of duty.’

However, this introvert aspect of his character - combined with an essential gentleness, an almost old world courtesy towards the ladies, and a desire to please - concealed a real passion to right wrongs, to help others, and to strive always to do things better.

R W Smithells

[Brit.med.J., 1969,296,1245]

(Volume IX, page 93)

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