Obituary: Professor Derek Melville Prinsley AM

From Polish Cavalry to computers - He pioneered world geriatric medicine


Among the last of the generation of doctors who served in the RAF during the Second World War, and among the last who qualified before the launch of the NHS, Professor Derek Prinsley has died in Melbourne, aged 97. A pioneer of geriatric medicine, he was also the first of three generations of Doctor Prinsleys who served in the NHS continuously since its launch. His career spanned medical practice in three continents and over 50 years as an active clinician.The son of Abraham and Ada Prinsky, he was born in West Hartlepool in 1921. His father was a jeweller and tobacconist and his mother, who was photographed in flapper dresses, was the first woman to drive a car in the town. The family relocated from the seafront to the town following the bombardment of Hartlepool by German battleships at the start of the First World War. His mother subsequently Anglicised her childrens’ names.

Medical students were fast-tracked during the war and he qualified aged 21 at Newcastle in December, 1942, as probably one of the youngest doctors in the country. Derek Prinsley joined the RAF and served in UK airbases and in the Middle East in Aden as Squadron Leader and Medical Officer.

Ships transporting wounded servicemen from the Far East would call at the port of Aden and be exchanged for recuperating patients well enough to sail for home. His autobiography, New Ideas for Old Concerns describes the negotiation that took place in the Captain’s cabin over a glass of gin to determine which patients would be swapped. It also vividly describes the grim process of extracting dying airmen from stricken aircraft that crash landed as they returned from raids.

Derek started work in the new NHS and his first attachment was at a chest surgery hospital in County Durham where, with several other medical officers he contracted TB. Fortunate to be among the earliest patients to be treated with the newly developed streptomycin, he was sent off to recuperate in an NHS sanitorium in Davos, Switzerland.

Resuming a career in medicine he wrote an MD about an obscure infection called Bornholm Disease, which included a detailed account of his own illness, and took the exams as a member of the Royal College of Physicians. He was pleased to receive a copy of his ENT surgeon son’s own MD thesis a few months before his final illness, about a study on the genetic sequencing of familial cholesteatoma, submitted 70 years after his own MD!

Prof Prinsley established the geriatric medicine service in Teesside between 1959 and 1976. Persuading the ward sister to get the recumbent patients out of bed into chairs proved impossible. There were no chairs! He appeared in a TED talk (a media organisation that posts talks online) filmed last year to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the NHS.

Invited in 1976 to become the first Professor of Geriatric Medicine at the University of Melbourne, Derek relocated with his family to Australia to establish a research institute at Mount Royal Hospital. Originally called the National Research Institute for Gerontology and Geriatric Medicine, it is now the National Ageing Research Institute. One of his first patients was the former Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, who promptly died on him. So that was not a good start.

He pioneered the importance of a team approach by health professionals in the management of the geriatric patient. Under his tutelage at NRIGGM, Anna Howe conducted the key work that led to the development of Aged Care Assessment Teams across Australia from 1984. It was described by Professor David Ames, a director of the Research Institute, as the most important initiative in aged care in Australia. He served as an expert adviser to the World Health Organisation and travelled around Asia in the 1980s, reporting on the state of geriatric medical services in a number of developing countries.

In 1986, when others might have considered hanging up their white coats, Derek moved to America, spending five years as Professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. He introduced the concept of the geriatric day hospital in Texas and travelled widely in the USA as an adviser and teacher. Returning to a long retirement in Melbourne, where he continued to play tennis well into his 90s, he was awarded the Member of the Order of Australia for services to geriatric medicine.

He remained very interested in medical matters, especially related to his own various ailments. He was fascinated and incredulous when informed he was to have a new heart valve inserted into his beating heart through his femoral artery. This was a doctor who could recall the first ECGs performed with limbs dipped into baths of electrolyte.

Derek Prinsley was an old-fashioned English doctor. He was always smart in a jacket and tie. Not unemotional but undemonstrative and never sentimental, he had an optimistic sense of looking forward, a sense of purpose in everything he did and in every day he lived. He was also a talented painter and a gardener. Always with a twinkle in his eye and a face creased with laughter, the above photograph was taken age 97, by his grandson, Dr Simon Prinsley.

What an amazingly long life he had! A war which began with Polish cavalry and ended with atomic weapons was for Derek a memory, not history. His was a life which saw the discovery of antibiotics and DNA, and the invention of the computer and of the internet.

He leaves four children and 11 grandchildren. He was predeceased by his wife of 59 years, Sasha Prinsley, the eldest daughter of Simon Heller of Harrogate, founder of KP Nuts.

Peter Prinsley FRCS


Professor Derek Melville Prinsley: born July 21, 1921. Died April 16, 2019

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