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Biographical entry Davis, Peter Reginald (1923 - 2013)

MB BS London 1946; MRCS LRCP 1946; PhD 1958; FRCS 1973.

27 July 1923
6 December 2013


Peter Reginald Davis was professor of human biology at the University of Surrey. He was born on 27 July 1923 in Wimbledon, the younger son of A H Davis, a government physicist, and his wife, Amy. Peter's childhood was spent in west London, and he went to St Paul's School. He became a medical student at St Bartholomew's Hospital in 1941, qualifying as a doctor in 1946. After house jobs, he went into the Army as a surgeon. At that time, you were expected to deal with anything that came your way as a surgeon, with very little backup; he gained extensive experience in post-war Germany, leaving him with alarming surgical stories which he enjoyed telling for many years.

On leaving the Army in 1953, he chose to become an academic, and at the Royal Free Hospital Medical School he started a distinguished career in anatomical teaching and research. He was highly regarded by his students, and he loved teaching his children as well. They were regularly taken to the anatomy dissection room from a very young age and learned much anatomy at home.

While at the Royal Free his interest grew in the anatomy and evolution of the human arm. This led to a research trip to Africa in 1959, where he spent two months on the Serengeti Plains, and in Olduvai Gorge, working with Louis Leakey. His subsequent PhD thesis was a study of the arm of the hominid Proconsul africanus.

He was appointed professor of human biology at the University of Surrey in 1969. He developed extensive research into back injuries; his interest was fuelled by his own tendency to back problems, which he treated with typical inventiveness.

Peter worked with the Coal Board to design better coal shovels, and the Army to improve tank driving seats. With his colleagues, he had fun with the Army - on one occasion he was locked in the guard room under suspicion of spying, and on another drove tanks on Salisbury Plain in the name of applied research.

His work led to membership of the Ergonomics Society (this has since become the Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors). He was editor of The Ergonomist from 1970 to 1971, and chair of the Society in 1985. He wrote many published academic papers and was an inspiring leader in the field of ergonomic research.

One great pride was his fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons, awarded in 1973. He finally retired, becoming professor emeritus at the University of Surrey, in 1983.

Peter Davis married Elizabeth Mary Jenman ('Betty') in 1947. Betty was also a doctor, involved in pathology and public health. They had three children, two of whom became consultant head and neck surgeons; their younger daughter was a senior psychologist. Peter and Betty retired together to a house in St Mawes, Cornwall, where they had a wonderful view over the estuary. Retirement gave them many happy adventures together on the water. They had a wooden boat built, as well as owning several cruisers, and Peter specialised in a range of small boats, including unstable pram dinghies, in which he used to meet his offspring on their arrival by sea.

His life was made happy by his family of four generations; he always delighted in childlike things, including Winnie the Pooh, and in retirement he loved to see them and show off his continuing achievements. Despite frailty, his sense of humour remained until his last hours and 'The Prof' was a great favourite in his retirement home. He died very peacefully on 6 December 2013, aged 90.

Anne Davis

The Royal College of Surgeons of England