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Obituary: Peter Niven

Tribute to Peter Niven given at Council on 23 March 2013 by Jonathan Frappell

Peter Ashley Robertson Niven began his lifelong association with St. Bartholomew’s Hospital when he was born there in 1938.This may have been a complete coincidence as he was not from a medical family. He was a bright child and was awarded a scholarship to Dulwich College, where he distinguished himself both academically and as a gifted sportsman, playing for the school first teams in rugby, cricket and hockey.

After school he went up to Cambridge, where he was a scholar of Gonville and Caius College, following which he went to Bart’s for his clinical studies, graduating M.B., Ch.B. in 1963. He was a popular student, being nicknamed ‘SuperNiv’ by many of his fellows because of his amazing ability to answer all the questions on ward rounds, not to mention knowing the latest cricket score or the result of the 3.30 at Kempton. He was always hugely interested in sport and played many to a high standard, including golf, cricket, rugby, hockey, skiing and horse racing. As well as being a sound judge of horseflesh, Peter also had an eye for a pretty girl and made the very wise decision to marry a Bart’s nurse, his beloved Peta, with whom he shared 48 very happy years of marriage, together with their 3 sons.

For all Bart’s men (and women) who aspired to a career in Obs and Gynae, it was deemed compulsory to become properly trained first by obtaining the surgical Fellowship. Thus Peter began his association with Bristol when he went there as an anatomy demonstrator to do his Primary FRCS, playing rugby for Clifton RFC, and on one occasion turning out against the Bart’s team who were on tour in the West Country.

Having gained his FRCS, training in O&G brought him back to London with posts at the Samaritan and Queen Charlotte’s Hospitals, and then back to his alma mater, Bart’s as Senior Registrar. During this time, in 1972, he was awarded the RCOG Eden Travelling Fellowship, which took him to Miami to pursue his research into Human Placental Lactogen.

On completion of training Peter was appointed to a consultant post in Newcastle. However, within a year a vacancy arose in Bristol. Peter applied and was duly appointed. This caused something of a stir at the time, as it was considered ‘bad form’ to move posts - in retrospect, Peter was in the vanguard of what is now considered perfectly normal. His move was of course to Bristol’s enduring benefit for the next 30 years.

He quickly established a reputation as an outstanding doctor, noted not only for his skill as a surgeon and obstetrician, but also for his warmth and humanity. His seemingly boundless interest and concern for his patients and the staff with whom he worked was legendary. All his colleagues, nursing, midwifery and medical, wanted Peter to look after them in their pregnancies and to do their operations. He always made strenuous efforts to be there for the delivery, and indeed delivered our first child when I was his SHO and my wife a theatre sister in Bristol. Many’s the time that Peter would arrive at night, hotfoot from a social engagement in his dinner jacket, to do the needful on the Labour Ward!

As well as his love for Bart’s and Bristol, Peter was also a dedicated College man. From 1992-95 he chaired the Higher Training Committee whose remit was to “oversee and regulate all matters pertaining to higher training”. Inspecting and recognizing training posts for registrars and SR’s was a big commitment which Peter fulfilled with distinction, his judgements always thoughtful, fair and balanced. Other College responsibilities included membership of the Education Board (1992-1995), Advisory Appointments Committee (1993-2013) Fellow’s Representative of the Part 2 MCQ Sub-Committee (1997-2000) and Chair of the Working Party on Assessment of Surgical Skills (2002-2003).

Peter was loved and respected by all who knew him. In Bristol his colleagues greatly appreciated his diplomatic skills when it came to building functional relationships between the varied clinical and academic units throughout the city. Medical students always competed to be on his firm, and he was renowned as a fair and understanding examiner at Finals. His patients, both NHS and private, adored him.

I shall leave the last word to Prof. Walter Prendiville, which I think sums up everything that the many people I have spoken to this past week feel about Peter. Walter was lecturer in the department when I was SHO in 1983.By his own admission something of an iconoclast with left of centre political leanings, Walter might superficially seem the complete antithesis to Peter, who was always immaculately turned out in a pin-striped suit(although always with a pristine white coat in clinics and on rounds!).

Walter writes;

“I have nothing but fond and respectful memories of him. One anecdote that I remember which epitomised him for me was at a time when Mo Reynolds was his SHO and I was his registrar. We were both pretty bolshie with him and he was forever both tolerant and bemused by us. I remember vividly Mo and I arguing far too forcibly about one or another aspect of inequality and dismissing any possible alternative to the truth as we saw it. When we had stopped ranting we waited for a response from Peter with relative confidence and a little trepidation. As we arrived at the top of the stair, Peter calmly with genuine conviction said: "You know the problem in any sphere of social endeavour, there just isn't enough love". We were speechless. He was right of course. He was a real gentleman.”

Jonathan Frappell, SW Fellows’ Representative