Peter Pharoah obituary

My father, Peter Pharoah, who has died aged 87 from dementia, was a professor of public health whose work eradicated iodine deficiency in Papua New Guinea and furthered understanding of the causes of cerebral palsy and perinatal death.

Peter was son of two teachers, Phyllis (nee Gahan) and Oswald Pharoah. Born in Ranchi, India, he attended schools in Lovedale and Sanawar. After the death of his father when Peter was seven, he came to Britain with his mother and brother in 1948. He attended Palmer’s school in Grays, Essex, and St Mary’s hospital medical school, London, where he met his future wife, Margaret McMinn, also training as a doctor, and ran in a team with Sir Roger Bannister.

Peter held junior doctor posts in London hospitals from 1958 and maintained the NHS’s founding values throughout his career. He married in 1960 and in 1963 he moved to Papua New Guinea with his young family to become the medical officer in Rabaul and subsequently district medical officer in Mount Hagen, Wewak and Goroka.

In an remote highland region, the Jimi valley, Peter found the arrival of administrators in the late 1950s coincided with the onset of endemic cretinism, a condition of severe nervous system abnormalities. The administrators paid villagers with salt and villagers stopped trekking to remote pools to make naturally iodised salt. Peter believed the resulting iodine deficiency might cause the cretinism.

He ran a clinical trial, rare at the time, particularly in such difficult terrain, and injected iodised oil into women of child-bearing age. The results were clear – endemic cretinism was caused by iodine deficiency during pregnancy. Legislation ensued ensuring only iodised salt was imported – and the disease was eradicated. Peter studied the children born during the trial over the next 20 years, accompanied by a succession of students and doctors on unforgettable patrols in a region barely touched by westerners.

In 1972 he returned to the UK to study and lecture at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. He became professor of public health at the University of Liverpool in 1979. He initiated a major study into the causes of perinatal mortality and published widely on the long-term outcomes for children with cerebral palsy. During this time, Peter used his database to forecast the life expectancy of children with cerebral palsy in many legal cases. He also edited the International Journal of Epidemiology from 1991 to 1999. He retired in 1997.

Peter loved photography and physical activity. He won squash matches against undergraduates in his 60s, cycled from Land’s End to John O’Groats for his 64th birthday and climbed Scafell Pike with his family in his mid-70s.

In 2020, Margaret died. He is survived by their four children, Fiona, Mark, Timothy and me, and by 12 grandchildren.


Leave a Reply

This website uses cookies. By continuing to use this site, you accept our use of cookies.