Professor Sir Keith Peters

Doctor of Medicine

14 July 2005 - Orator: Professor Peter Mathieson

 Mr Vice-Chancellor: Keith Peters

David Keith Peters was born on the 26th of July 1938 (incidentally, happy 67th birthday for two weeks’ time) about 75 miles from here, in Neath, South Wales, the only child of a working family. His father was a steel worker; there were no medical or scientific connections. Indeed Keith was the first member of his family to go to university. Although the physical distance from Bristol was only 75 miles, Keith tells me that during his childhood Bristol seemed a long way away since there was no Severn Bridge at that time. He went to Glan Afan Grammar School in Port Talbot and then studied Medicine at the Welsh National School of Medicine in Cardiff, from where he graduated in 1961. After junior posts at Cardiff Royal Infirmary, in 1965 he became a Medical Research Council clinical research fellow in Birmingham and at the National Institute for Medical Research at Mill Hill in London. He briefly returned to Cardiff then reached consultant grade with his first appointment at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School, Hammersmith Hospital in 1969, a mere 8 years after qualifying in medicine. At that time, this rapid rise to the top must have been something of a record. After another 8 years, he became the Director of the Department of Medicine at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School, a post he filled for 10 years until he left for Cambridge in 1987. Keith Peters came to personify the Royal Postgraduate Medical School, and its reputation for a stimulating competitive atmosphere dedicated to the pursuit of excellence in academic medicine. Under his direction, the Royal Postgraduate Medical School grew in size and in stature, gaining an international reputation for clinical and laboratory research. It became the “place to be” for all those aspiring to careers in academic medicine. The medical staff rounds, invariably chaired by Keith Peters, became world-famous: providing entertainment and education in equal measure. Informative clinical cases were presented and discussed in a highly charged atmosphere notable for intellectual jousting between participants, with Keith acting as a sometimes mischievous ring-master. Keith Peters’ departure from Hammersmith roughly coincided with the start of my second stint there, although I don’t think his departure and my return were directly connected! He became Regius Professor of Physic in Cambridge in 1987 and set about transforming the Clinical School in Cambridge into the thriving research-orientated institution which it is today. I followed him to Cambridge in 1988 and I am proud to have been part of his department for seven years during the transformation. Historically, Cambridge had been favoured by medical students for their undergraduate studies, but not as a place to continue into the clinical years of the medical course. One aspect of the change in atmosphere which became evident after Keith’s arrival was that Cambridge students started to indicate a preference to stay, and competition for places on the clinical course in Cambridge became hot: indeed, increasing numbers of students who had done their undergraduate years in Oxford and other universities also chose Cambridge for their clinical studies, and I know that this gave Keith great pleasure. Regarding research, Keith managed to bring together the basic science excellence which was already available in Cambridge, including several Nobel laureates, with clinical researchers in numerous specialities to create what has now become an internationally-renowned medical research environment. In recent years this has been distilled into the Cambridge Institute of Medical Research, a splendid building in which there is cutting edge research in several subject areas. Keith Peters is not a friend of car parks: the Cambridge Institute was built on an area which used to provide car parking to me and to numerous other members of staff. Perhaps it is just as well that Cambridge is flat and so many people are able to ride bicycles to work!

Keith Peters’ vision, his abilities to talent-spot, to fund-raise, to persuade people that whatever he wants is also what they want, are legendary. In his career he has built not one but two world-class institutions at the forefront of clinical and basic biomedical research. He has inspired numerous clinical academics including me, the Dean of Medicine & Dentistry here in Bristol, Professor Gareth Williams, and our Vice-Chancellor Professor Eric Thomas. Keith Peters has said that academic departments should judge themselves by the quality of the people that leave: his influence on academic medicine is exemplified by this, since his protégés now occupy senior academic positions throughout the United Kingdom and also in many other countries as far afield as Australia and the United States. His contribution has been recognised with a knighthood in the New Year’s Honours List in 1993, Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1995 and numerous other distinctions. He was a founder fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences, an august body devoted to the ideals that he has done so much to advance, in 1998 and became it’s President in 2002.

In 2001, at the beginning of the process of assessment and change that has been going on in our Faculty here in Bristol since the last Research Assessment Exercise, Sir Keith Peters chaired the panel of external assessors. At the time, I didn’t know whether to be pleased or horrified at the Vice Chancellor’s choice of my former supervisor as chief assessor! As ever, Keith’s advice was clear, forthright and constructive and his report provided the basis of the Faculty’s recovery plan. The external review was the starting point of a detailed, far-reaching and often painful process of reconstruction. It may be too early to judge whether Bristol’s clinical faculty has taken all the necessary steps to enable it to emulate the institutions led by Keith Peters, but there could have been no-one better qualified than him to set us on the appropriate path.

Now Keith Peters is approaching retirement, and it is fitting that this university is being added to those wishing to honour him. It is difficult to imagine that his influence on clinical academic medicine will be any less in the next few years than it has been in the last few. He is chairman of council of his alma mater, Cardiff University, co-chair of the Council for Science & Technology and a member of several scientific and medical advisory boards. This approach to retirement typifies the boundless energy and commitment that Keith Peters has demonstrated over the years. His competitive edge has also found success on the tennis court and on the ski slopes: he tells me that his tennis is still improving but his skiing prowess may have passed its peak.

Keith Peters has offered inspiration and motivation to a generation of clinical academics. He has a unique ability to combine intelligence, strength and leadership with human qualities such as humour, friendship and loyalty. He is the enemy of complacency, mediocrity and nihilism (and car parks!). As a role model he is second to none. Academic medicine in the United Kingdom and the wider world owes him enormous gratitude.  

I would like to end my comments on a personal note. When I received my PhD in Cambridge in 1992, Keith Peters said to me: “Well done, Peter: at least now you have got a degree from a decent university!” Thirteen years later, it gives me great pleasure to be able to return the compliment and say “well done Keith, at least now you have got a degree from a decent university!”

Mr Vice Chancellor, I present to you David Keith Peters as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Medicine honoris causa.


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