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ByNigel Harper

Dr. Desmond McNeill – Obituary

Obituary and Celebration of the life of Dr. Desmond McNeill.  A quondam member over many years of the Society of Clinical Psychiatrists.

Dr. Desmond McNeill
Consultant Psychiatrist
Born 2nd April, 1920 in Ootacamund, India
Died 22nd December 2013
From Multiple Organ Failure, Myocardial Infarction secondary to Chronic kidney disease and Diabetes Mellitus
(So says the death certificate – you can take your pick except it wasn’t the diabetes!)

Desmond Lorne Marcus McNeill was a truly remarkable human being and doctor. At the age of 5 in January 1926 he was diagnosed as diabetic while on a skiing holiday in Switzerland and at the time of his death was probably historically the longest living insulin dependent diabetic patient. When he was training at KCH he was a Houseman on the Diabetic Unit and at that time all the medical staff on the Diabetic Unit from the Consultants down were insulin dependent diabetics. RD Lawrence and Wilfred Oakley were the consultants at that time.

His nascent psychiatric interest emerged when he was at St. Mary’s Hospital, now Imperial, where he did a weekly outpatients clinic there, regularly seeing prisoners with psychiatric problems at Holloway, Wormwood Scrubs and Wandsworth prisons.

Those of us, such as I, who first met Desmond as his junior medical trainee in the 1960s were immediately impressed by a man devoid of pomp, with a serious but friendly manner, a personality that led to easy and lasting relationship. To learn later (not from him) that he suffered from that disease was a complete surprise. I can’t remember his ever mentioning it. The only hint of such was about 10 years ago when following our lunching together in Ewell he mumbled something about taking advantage of being near his local chemist as he wished to pick up a prescription. He didn’t mention Diabetes. I never touched on the matter with him. Instinctively one sensed, despite anything I have said above, Desmond was distinctly a private person. He was a fine physician and I can assert that his nursing staff thought the world of him.

In the clinical situation his was a calming presence readily noted on ward rounds of one of the most acute wards in Horton Hospital, Epsom. In his abiding background was his wife, Hazel and their daughter, Sandra. Meeting the trio at an evening drinks party hosted by one of the other consultants we felt this was probably not Desmond’s favourite metier. My wife and I pulled his leg as he used his then 14 year old daughter Sandra as an excuse to leave early “because of the baby sitter”. We wondered aloud whether a babysitter would still be required when Sandra was 21! A happy triumvirate. Hazel was a vivacious lady with a lovely sense of humour. One instance later was her sending my wife and me a pair of plastic baby pants for our first born with the added comment “just to keep the party clean”. Although we never lost touch there was a period in my career when we, then living in Ireland, learned to our horror in March 1973 that he had been attacked by a long stay patient, a well known chronically psychotic female patient from Desmond’s ward. This happened in the medical secretariat public area. He was stabbed in the abdomen close to evisceration. That his life was saved was thanks to the heroic and prompt action of medical staff at Horton and also at Epsom District Hospital (now Epsom General). His abdominal musculature was severely damaged but he recovered thanks to good nursing and doubtless the enduring support of his loving family.

If, following that terrible incident, Desmond had decided to retire, no reasonable person would have considered such action as inappropriate: the sheer extent of his injuries, the manner and place in which they occurred surely added an additional burden and there was also the continuing underlying diabetes incubus. Yet in due course he returned to his medical duties after 3 weeks in hospital and only 6 months off work, in September the same year. We met not frequently, but regularly over subsequent years. I can never once recall discussing that traumatic life event with Desmond. He never raised it and his natural reserve in such matters was such that one sensed that was the way he wanted it. He also retained, to the end of his life, his active interest in the Society of Clinical Psychiatrists.

He had, in earlier years, been a tennis and golf enthusiast. During his training at Kings College Hospital he gained University of London colours in tennis and squash in 1942 and played hockey for United London Hospitals. He continued to play tennis into his 60s and golf into his mid 80s. No one could claim he had not lived a full life outside medicine.

He retired from his consultant post in April 1985 aged 65 to enjoy life with Hazel and his recently born twin grandchildren, but any such hope was to be shattered by the sudden death of his beloved Hazel on 10th May, 1989. She had been for so long the picture of good health and support for her husband. It was a cruel blow to Desmond and Sandra.

Sometimes I muse about Desmond and his diabetes. Altogether he was afflicted with it for 88 years. He managed it unobtrusively. Most remarkably he never suffered from any of the stigmata that so afflict so many sufferers. As I write I think of a not very close relative suffering recently who has had a necessary partial lower limb amputation because of the disease. It seems almost ubiquitous with special treatment teams devoted to its management. I did hear that Desmond resisted later insulin products and strongly resisted any changes to allegedly superior newer drugs.

But mostly in idle moments I recall Horton days and my wife Ruth, who when I commenced my working there, was snatched into working in the hospital’s medical secretariat. She was so willing and competent she was much in demand. Because of that she was recruited to be recording secretary to Desmond’s Honorary Secretary responsibility to Horton Senior Medical Staff Committee: Ruth, so intensely interested, got carried away in the discussion and Desmond’s discrete elbow had to remind her with a gentle hand prod to get on with actually writing the record!

It was an honour to read, at Sandra’s request, the Anne Bronte poem “Farewell” at Desmond’s funeral.

Dr Dermot J Ward