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Biographical entry Steele-Perkins, Derek Duncombe (1908 - 1994)

KCB; KCVO; FRCS ad eundem 1961; LRCP LRCS Edinburgh; LRFPS Glasgow 1930; DLO 1942; FRACS 1945.

19 June 1908
9 December 1994
Military surgeon


Derek Steele-Perkins was born on 19 June 1908, the son and grandson of West Country doctors. He trained in Edinburgh where he represented the University in athletics. He wrestled for Devon and also played rugby for the county and the Royal Navy, missing a trial for the England XV when he was posted to the China station. He served on the river gunboat Mantis, patrolling the Yangtse and West rivers. He had enlisted in the Royal Navy in 1932 after house surgeon appointments at the Gloucester Royal Infirmary and the Hammersmith Hospital. During his service in China he noted that it was quite improper for him to examine Chinese women in person, and any diagnosis had to proceed by passing an ivory female figurine back and forth behind a screen in order to 'tell doctor where it hurts'.

In late 1936 he returned from China and was posted to the guardships which were being stationed in the Spanish ports to secure the lives of British tourists, residents and refugees from the civil war. The next year he returned to HMS Ganges, a seaman boys' training establishment at Shotley. Normal leave was not granted to him between the two postings but he managed to get sick leave so that his planned marriage to Joan Boddan of Birkdale did not have to be cancelled! Two years later he went to sea again on the cadet training cruiser Vindictive, returning at the outbreak of war to Haslar. From 1940 to 1944 he worked as a surgeon at the naval hospital at Chatham.

He was posted to the Pacific in 1944 where he qualified as a Fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons. He became senior surgical specialist to the Royal Naval Hospital at Bighi in Malta prior to his appointment to the Royal Yacht for the Royal Commonwealth tours of 1952, 1953-4, and later 1959 to Australia, New Zealand, Tonga, Fiji and Ceylon. During this time he was appointed CVO. He was travelling surgeon to the Queen during these protracted voyages, and on subsequent ones to India and Canada. He was with Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip when the news of the death of King George VI was received at the Treetops guest house, and they then had to return to the United Kingdom.

He returned to Chatham to become surgeon captain until 1959 and was then promoted to senior surgical specialist until 1961, in which year he was created Queen's Honorary Surgeon. He returned to Haslar in command and then became surgeon rear admiral to the medical directorship of the navy in 1963. As surgeon vice admiral he successfully argued against the attempted amalgamation of the three armed forces. He put the case that the problems of naval warfare, with the addition of the special problems of extensive submarine warfare and the recently introduced nuclear deterrent, all justified a specialist medical service - the Royal Naval Medical Service. This view prevailed and, despite repeated cuts, still prevails.

He was a delightful man to work for - clear minded, objective, considerate and with a subtle sense of humour. After retirement he worked as a consultant chairing medical assessment boards. A keen sailor, he owned a number of Contessa class cruising yachts - at the age of 70 he crossed the Atlantic from the Bahamas in a 42 foot yacht. He was an effective Commodore of the Royal Lymington Yacht Club and chairman of the local Red Cross and RNLI committees.

He died on 9 December 1994, his wife having predeceased him in 1985. He was survived by his three daughters and a nephew, now a surgeon captain.

Sources used to compile this entry: [The Times 20 December 1994, with portrait].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England