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Biographical entry Jennings, Peter John (1934 - 2014)

MB BS London 1957; FRCS 1963.

17 January 1934
Whyteleafe, Surrey
11 April 2014
General surgeon


Peter Jennings was a consultant general surgeon at St Bartholomew's Hospital, Rochester, and Medway Hospital, Gillingham. He was a big man and towered over the surgical department in the Medway towns during his career. He enjoyed his work as a general surgeon but, in his own words, written in 2008, considered his greatest success '…helping to set up the symptom control team and the hospice that followed'.

He was born on 17 January 1934, at home in Whyteleafe, near Croydon, Surrey, the first child of Ethel Victoria Elizabeth Jennings née Randall and Albert James Jennings, and weighed in at 10 pounds eight ounces. Fairly soon after the outbreak of the Second World War, in September 1939, the family moved to Kingston, Surrey. Peter attended the local school and passed a scholarship to Tiffin Grammar School but, in 1944, he was evacuated with his brother Barry to Littleborough near Rochdale in the north of England. Although this was only for seven months, the period left a lasting, unhappy impression on him. Returning to Tiffin, he did well academically and enjoyed both rugby and rowing. In 1949 his father became the landlord of the Forester pub in Plumstead and Peter attended sixth form at St Olave's Grammar School. It was then that he decided to go into medicine.

In October 1952 he entered Charing Cross Hospital Medical School in the Strand, London. He lived at home and helped in the pub, which he always said taught him how to talk to a variety of people. During his time as a medical student he met Valerie Downton, a fellow student, who later became his wife. He qualified MB BS in 1957, being awarded the Governors' clinical gold medal. He did his house jobs at Charing Cross Hospital, including an orthopaedic post with David Trevor, and decided to follow a surgical career. This was followed by a year as an anatomy demonstrator, during which he passed the primary FRCS examination of the Royal College of Surgeons. Meanwhile, in June 1958 (at the completion of his house officer posts) he married Valerie, who began training in general practice.

Peter worked as a registrar at Mount Vernon Hospital from 1961 to 1963. In 1963 Peter returned to Charing Cross and passed the FRCS. He was appointed as a senior lecturer to Anthony Harding Rains. The renal unit at Fulham Hospital was developing under the direction of Hugh de Wardener, and Peter went to the USA in order to learn the technique for inserting A/V shunts for patients on the newly-established renal dialysis unit. In 1965 he spent a year as a registrar at St Mark's Hospital to broaden his colorectal experience, before returning to Charing Cross Hospital (Fulham). He was encouraged to take on renal transplantation, but Peter did not want to remain in London and, in 1967, at the age 33, he accepted a post as a consultant general surgeon at St Bartholomew's Hospital, Chatham, Kent.

By 1968 the family, now consisting of two daughters and two sons, was settled in Rochester and Valerie was working as a general practitioner in the Medway towns.

Peter's practice was initially very general at both St Bartholomew's and the Medway Hospital, Gillingham, including abdominal, urological and breast surgery. In 1978, the matron at St Bartholomew's Hospital approached Peter with the idea of setting up a domiciliary team to support patients and general practitioners with their terminally ill patients. This was a subject close to Peter's heart and he readily agreed, devoting a session to this project. In 1979 the symptom control team was launched. It then became clear that a hospice was needed in the area and, following an intensive fundraising effort, the Wisdom Hospice, Rochester, was officially opened by the Queen in 1984.

Peter retired in 1989 after a heart attack and coronary artery bypass. However, he returned for a while, doing locums for surgical colleagues and for the hospice. He had sufficient insight to call a halt to his clinical work in 1995, at the age of 61, when he recognised a deterioration in his competence and enthusiasm.

In his spare time, throughout his career, Peter enjoyed family life and grandchildren, gardening, wood-working and umpiring for Maidstone Rowing Club. He and Valerie regularly attended Henley Regatta.

In 2011 he began to show signs of vascular dementia. He spent his last months in a nursing home and died on 11 April 2014, aged 80. Many of his colleagues, friends and supporters of the hospice movement never understood why Peter's efforts and success in conceiving and building the Wisdom Hospice were not recognised officially by what would have been a well-deserved honour.

Ron Hoile

Sources used to compile this entry: [Valerie Jennings; the Jennings family].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England