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Obituary: Sir John Harold Peel

10 December 1904 – 31 December 2005

John Peel was one of the great men of the medical profession, whose career was characterised by honours and distinctions. A combination of brilliance and relentless hard work in the best interest of patients took him to the top of the medical tree.

He was born 10th December 1904 in Surbiton, a small village in Surrey, but as his father was a clergyman he lived in several parts of the country during his early years. From when he was 10 to when he was 14 he lived through the First World War—which included the loss of his older brother who was killed fighting on the western front.

Soon after the end of the war he won a scholarship to Manchester Grammar School. He revelled in its high academic standards although his first love was Classics at which he excelled. But fortunately he changed his mind whilst pondering his future on Widnes station and decided to read Medicine at Queen's College Oxford.

During his time in Oxford he applied for a postgraduate scholarship to King's College Hospital. Unfamiliar with London (his first visit), he took the tube to Elephant & Castle and walked to Denmark Hill on an exceedingly hot day. The surprisingly short interview with the Dean culminated in the question

“Do you play rugby, Peel?”

And so began his life-long association with King's.

He was later appointed a consultant at King's College Hospital at the age of 31 in 1936. During the air raids of the Second World War he often spent long hours in the operating theatre (evacuated to the basement) under the full weight of Luftwaffe bombs, attending to the surgical needs of casualties—he was just as confident and at home with trauma as he was with obstetrics.

As an obstetrician he assisted Sir William Gilliatt at the births of Prince Charles in 1948 and Princess Anne in 1950. When Sir William was tragically killed in a car crash in 1956, Sir John took over his role and delivered Prince Andrew, Prince Edward, and Princess Margaret's two children Viscount Linley and Lady Sarah Armstrong-Jones. He was appointed Surgeon Gynaecologist to Her Majesty The Queen who knighted him after the birth of Prince Andrew in 1960.

His first association with this College began when he became a Member in 1934. He was elected to the Fellowship of the College in 1944, and to Council in 1955. Four years later he became Honorary Treasurer. After seven years he was elected President.

His Presidency from 1966 to 1969 spanned the introduction of the abortion law reform which he pursued with David Steele. He was faced with a Council that contained members who were deeply opposed to this. He had his own reservations about abortion but saw that it would lead to the end of women dying needlessly as a result of botched back street abortions.

After his Presidency he chaired two important, departmental enquiries into maternity bed needs—“The Peel Report”. He concluded that women were safer delivering in hospital, although Archie Cochrane questioned the evidence base for this. He also chaired the enquiry on the use of Fetal Material in Scientific Research. The reports from both these enquiries were forward looking and far thinking.

An important final contribution to College affairs was to write the carefully researched biography of Blair Bell. He remained very active after his Presidency as an adviser to Ted Heath's government and along the way he also managed to fit in being President of the BMA.

For much of his professional life Sir John was a successful fundraiser. He was largely responsible for the new maternity unit at King's and he raised money for the College for its move to and the development at its present site here. He also raised money for research, which led to the establishment of Birthright, WellBeing, and then WellBeing of Women.

His own research was into Maternal Diabetes. King's had one of the first diabetic clinics in the United Kingdom. Diabetics flocked to King's for the new life-saving treatment and among them were many of Sir John's pregnant patients.

In every field of his endeavours he commanded the respect of his colleagues and even when they disagreed with him—which wasn't very often—he could be very persuasive.

What of his work-life balance? His other fields of endeavour were dairy farming, gardening, and fishing. He bought a dairy farm in Wiltshire, raising a fine herd of Frisian cows. It is said that he seemed as at home in the cowshed as he was in the maternity department.

He married three times. His second wife, Freda, had been a ward sister at Kings and they were married in 1947. She was a perfect partner for him understanding the professional pressures that he was under and giving him a tranquil home base. She immersed herself in College affairs during his Presidency. Freda died in 1993 after 46 years of marriage – this hit Sir John very hard.

Ten years ago he re-married Sally Barton who was very much younger than him

He was 91

On December 10th 2004 he celebrated his 100th birthday. Sally accompanied him to a College commemorative lunch, which several Officers from here also attended. He made a polished speech and made the audience quite forget that he was 100 years old.

He continued to be active and continued fishing until he was 100 years old - after falling into the Test one day and having been removed from his river-filled boots and driven home he changed his clothes and demanded to be driven back to complete the afternoon's fishing.

His final illness was relatively short and he died of heart failure in his sleep at home on the morning of the last day of December 2005 at the age of 101.

Sir John Harold Peel was a remarkable man and one of the greatest leaders of this College. His passing marks the end of an era .

I am greatly indebted to Michael Brudenell for providing me with most of the information within this Tribute. It is based on the address that he gave at Sir John's funeral in Salisbury Cathedral on the 16th January 2006.

Shaughn O'Brien, Vice President