Browse Fellows


www Lives

Biographical entry Rickham, Peter Paul (1917 - 2003)

MRCS 1943; FRCS 1947; MB BChir Cambridge 1941; MS 1949; DCH 1950; Hon MD Gottingen 1967; LRCP 1943.

21 June 1917
Berlin, Germany
17 November 2003
Paediatric surgeon


Peter Rickham was one of a small group of pioneering surgeons who helped to establish the specialty of paediatric surgery in the UK. He was born in Berlin on 21 June 1917, where his father, Otto Louis Reichenheim, was professor of physics at Berlin University. His mother was Susanne née Huldschinsky. Peter was educated at the Kanton School and the Institute Rosenberg, St Galen, Switzerland. He then went to Queen’s College, Cambridge, and on to St Bartholomew’s for his clinical training, where he won the Butterworth prize for surgery. After junior posts, he joined the RAMC, where he had a distinguished career, taking part in the Normandy invasion and the war in the Far East, reaching the rank of Major.

On demobilisation, he trained in paediatric surgery under Sir Denis Browne at Great Ormond Street and Isobella Forshall at the Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, Liverpool. After a year as Harkness travelling fellow, spent in Boston and Philadelphia, he was appointed consultant paediatric surgeon at Alder Hey in 1952. He became director of paediatric surgical studies in 1965 and in 1971 was appointed professor of paediatric surgery at the University Children’s Hospital in Zurich, Switzerland, where he remained until his retirement in 1983.

He was intensely involved with research. His MS thesis concerned the metabolic response of the newborn to surgery. Later he devised the Rickham reservoir, an integral part of the Holter ventricular drainage system for hydrocephalus. His textbook, Neonatal surgery (London, Butterworths, 1969), remained the standard text for many years. At Alder Hey, he set up the first neonatal surgical unit in the world. It became a benchmark for similar units around the world, and resulted in an improvement in the survival of newborn infants undergoing surgery from 22 per cent to 74 per cent.

He was Hunterian Professor at the College in 1964 and 1967, was honoured with the Denis Browne gold medal of the British Asosciation of Paediatic Surgeons, the medal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Chevalier Legion d’Honneur in 1979 and the Commander’s Cross (Germany) in 1988.

Peter was a founder member of the Association of Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus, the European Union of Paediatric Surgeons and of the British Association of Paediatric Surgeons, serving as its President from 1967 to 1968. He was a cofounder and editor for Europe of the Journal of Pediatric Surgery.

Innovative, forceful and outspoken, he was passionately involved with his specialty. Shortly after his appointment in Liverpool he became so exasperated by the local paediatricians’ use of barium to diagnose oesophageal atresia that at Christmas 1954 he sent each one a card enclosing a radio-opaque catheter with which to make the diagnosis safely. He took great pride in the achievements of his many pupils who went on to become leaders in their specialty.

He married Elizabeth Hartley in 1938 and they had a son, David, and two daughters, Susan and Mary-Anne. Elizabeth died in 1998 and he married for a second time, to Lynn, who nursed him through his final long illness. He had five grandchildren. He died on 17 November 2003.

Sources used to compile this entry: [BMJ 2003 327 1408, with portrait; The Times 1 December 2003; information from Lewis Spitz.].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England