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Obituary for Derek Prinsley

Derek Melville Prinsley AM who pioneered Geriatric Medicine in four Continents
b 21st July 1921, q Durham 1942, died of old age in Melbourne on 16th April 2019

Among the last the of the generation of doctors who served in the RAF during the 2nd world war and among the last of the doctors who were qualified before the start of the NHS, Professor Derek Prinsley, who became a pioneer of geriatric medicine, has died in Melbourne Australia, age 97. His career spanned medical practice in four continents and over 50 years of active clinical practice.

Derek Prinsley was born, the son of Abraham and Ada Prinsky, 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.

Medical students were fast tracked during the war and qualified age 21 at Newcastle in Dec 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 Sq 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 would take 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 Co Durham where with several of the 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.

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 MRCP.
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! Bookends for the NHS.

He was a pioneer geriatrician. He established the geriatric medicine service in Teesside between 1959 and 1976. One of his first moves was to ask the ward sister to get the recumbent patients out of bed into chairs. Only there were no chairs! He appeared in a TED talk filmed last year to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the NHS and “Prinsley’s ten rules” including such gems as “if you put up a bed somebody will come and lie in it” and “everybody else’s patients always look better than yours” was a highlight. He was the first of three generations of Doctor Prinsleys who have served in the NHS continuously since it started.

Relocating with his family in 1976 to Australia Derek became the first Professor of Geriatric Medicine at the University of Melbourne and established a research institute at Mt Royal Hospital: 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. He served as an expert advisor to the WHO and travelled around Asia in the 1980s reporting on the state of geriatric medical services in a number of developing countries.

In 1986 at an age when others might have considered hanging up their white coat he upped sticks to the USA where he spent 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 advisor 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 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 he was 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. He was a life member of the BMA and read the BMJ in great detail every week.

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

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

He leaves 4 children one of whom is an ENT surgeon and 11 grandchildren one of whom is a trainee in Accident and Emergency Medicine. He was predeceased by his wife of 59 years, Sasha Prinsley, the eldest daughter of Simon Heller of Harrogate, the founder of the KP Nut business.

Peter Prinsley, Norwich, UK
prinsley@mac.com