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Biographical entry Peach, Alfred Nowell Hamilton (1913 - 2012)

MB ChB Bristol 1937; MRCS 1948; FRCS 1948.

30 June 1913
13 January 2012
General surgeon


Nowell Peach was a GP surgeon in Horsham, Sussex. He was born in Bristol on 30 June 1913, the son of Alec Hamilton Peach, an insurance agent, and Madeleine Lucy Pugh Peach née White. He was educated at Clifton College and went on to study medicine at the University of Bristol's medical school, qualifying in 1937.

Following a succession of house officer posts, at Bristol Royal Infirmary and Southmead Hospital, Peach decided to train as a surgeon. He was due to start a primary fellowship anatomy and physiology course at Middlesex Hospital on 4 September 1939, but fate intervened: he was called up to serve as a medical officer in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve and, in July 1940, was posted to Singapore. Later he was moved up country to the RAF base at Alor Setar on the northwest coast of Malaya.

In December 1941 the Japanese invaded northern Malaya and Peach oversaw the evacuation of patients while under heavy bombardment, remaining at the hospital until almost the last moment. He was mentioned in despatches for safely evacuating all of the sick. His own retreat to Singapore was executed in typical Peach style, at the wheel of an 'old thirty horsepower Ford V8, secondhand from the Chinese garage in Singapore, which went like a train'. He arrived safely in Singapore later the same day. Peach was then posted to Palembang in Sumatra, but his medical unit had again to beat a hasty retreat, this time to Java, when Japanese paratroopers landed nearby.

By the end of February 1942 Peach was working alongside the legendary Australian surgeon and commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Edward 'Weary' Dunlop at the No 1 Allied General Hospital in Bandung. Following the Dutch surrender (during the night of 8/9 March), the Japanese allowed the staff to continue treating battle casualties for a further six weeks before suddenly closing the hospital. During that time Dunlop, knowing of Peach's intention to become a surgeon, found a secondhand 1936 American edition of Gray's anatomy in Bandung and presented it to him. After gaining Japanese permission to keep the text book (evidenced by a rubber-stamped 'chop' or mark), Peach read it from cover to cover throughout the three and a half years of his captivity, memorising the contents. This was to prove invaluable to him on his return to medical practice after the war.

Equipped with little more than his knowledge and a handful of portable instruments, Peach, along with other medical officers, was sent to the nearby Bandung prisoner of war camp for several months. Then, in late summer, he was moved again, this time to Batavia (now known as Jakarta), where he spent a week, before being transferred to the large transit camp at Tandjong Priok. For the next six months he busied himself not only with medical duties, but also with research into a painful side effect of vitamin deficiency. His meticulously recorded a unique study into what was known as 'burning feet' syndrome, undertaking the detailed neurological screening of over 50 men, all suffering appalling discomfort due to nerve damage caused by malnutrition. Peach needed to understand more about the condition and devised a comprehensive series of neurological investigations, typing up the results for each man. However, before he could start he lacked one essential instrument, a patellar hammer, needed to test reflexes. He turned to the Royal Engineers in the camp, who made him one: the head was part of a generator attached to a steel syringe plunger, fixed into a teak handle whittled by Peach.

In mid-1943 Peach was transferred again to work at the prisoner of war hospitals in Batavia, established in the St Vincentius and Mater Dolorosa convents. Shortly before the end of the war he was moved one last time back to Bandung, from where he was liberated in late August 1945.

While awaiting liberation, Peach assisted local Dutch civilians who had been interned and were in a very poor state. He also wrote up a detailed report of his experiences as a medical officer. Peach returned to Britain on board the repatriation ship Cilicia from Singapore, arriving in Liverpool on 29 October 1945. The evening before, he and the other medical officers on board were each presented with a handwritten, four-paragraph testimonial of thanks from the RAF contingent on board. The second paragraph reads: 'When medical supplies were unavailable and your fight against overwhelming and ever-increasing odds seemed futile and thankless, never once did you give up the fight or fail to keep up the high standards and traditions of your profession.' He treasured this document above all others.

Peach initially resumed his surgical career in London. In April 1946, a mere six months after his return, he passed the primary fellowship examination, thanks to Dunlop's thoughtful gift and his own determination and indomitable spirit. In 1948 he achieved his fellowship. In the postwar years he worked at the Bristol Royal Infirmary, at the Sussex County Hospital, Chichester, and at Portsmouth Royal Infirmary. For two years he was a civilian surgical specialist to Colchester Military Hospital. However, in 1954, frustrated that he was unable to progress beyond senior registrar posts, Peach decided to become a GP surgeon in Horsham, where over the next couple of decades he undertook over 3,000 operations.

Retired Horsham GP Geoffrey Gover was in partnership with Peach and worked as his anaesthetist at Horsham Hospital. He said: 'I will never forget the first day I met Dr Nowell Peach in June 1959 when I was interviewed…for the post of assistant to the North Street Partnership in Horsham…. After introductions, my first question was from this rather daunting and seemingly severe surgical partner who asked me if I could give anaesthetics. I soon discovered his bark was worse than his bite and gradually we became the best of friends. His knowledge of anatomy was second to none. It was a privilege to work with such a fine surgeon who could turn his hand to any aspect of surgery.'

Apart from his family, his other great love was ornithological photography. A gifted cameraman, his photographs taken over the past 50 years are quite remarkable. What started as a hobby aged eight developed in his teens when he joined the Natural History Society at Clifton and learned the art of photographing birds. Ornithology and sketching native species within the camps also proved a great distraction while he was incarcerated in Java, as his many notebooks, kept secretly throughout his captivity, reveal.

In 2007, nearly 30 years into his retirement, Peach took part in the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine's Far Eastern prisoner of war oral history study. In all he gave three interviews, generously and meticulously sharing his memories of those times for the benefit of future generations.

Peach was possessed of a marvellous sense of humour, an insatiable curiosity and a zest for life. In his final months he relished mastering the wonders of the iPad. He was a modest, gifted man who believed himself to be an 'ordinary' fellow - one who just happened to have led an extraordinary life.

In 1949 he met and married Pauline Patricia Esther Ward, a registered nurse, who was the love of his life. Nowell Peach died peacefully on 13 January 2012, aged 98, and was survived by Pauline, their five children (Caroline, Michael, Judith, Elizabeth and Patricia), 13 grandchildren and six great grandchildren.

Meg Parkes

Sources used to compile this entry: [West Sussex County Times 5 February 2012].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England