Peter Higgins

BMJ 2011; 342 doi: (Published 13 April 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:d2365
  1. Joanna Lyall
  1. j.lyall{at}

Championed general practice as an academic specialty

Peter Higgins was a champion of general practice education in the years before vocational training became mandatory, and he was a key figure in community development in Thamesmead, the new town where he worked as a general practitioner for 30 years.

After hospital jobs at University College Hospital, London, where he qualified in 1947, he worked in general practices in Rugeley, a mining village in Staffordshire, and Castle Vale, a new housing development in Birmingham, and he saw the need for services provided by a range of professionals working from purpose built health centres, which were still rare in the 1960s. Interested in the links between social deprivation and illness, he believed that many patients could be kept out of hospital if given more effective primary care.

Practice in Thamesmead

In 1968 he was appointed senior lecturer in general practice at Guy’s Hospital Medical School, with responsibility to set up a teaching practice in Thamesmead, the new London County Council development planned to house 60 000 people.

He jumped at the opportunity even though it meant working single handed in a hut initially. “Here was a chance to develop a comprehensive health service with a special emphasis on primary care for a large population in a capital city and also provide a teaching unit in the community for Guy’s medical and dental students,” he wrote (BMJ 1982;285:1564-6, doi:10.1136/bmj.285.6354.1564).

By 1982 there were six partners, all of whom taught at Guy’s as well as seeing patients, and Lakeside, the purpose built health centre, housed the community dental service and provided consultant clinics in psychiatry, surgery, paediatrics, dermatology, gynaecology, and rheumatology as well as counselling services.

Appointed regional adviser in general practice for South East Thames in 1970, and professor of general practice at Guy’s in 1974, Higgins, who has died aged 86, also developed a master of science degree in general practice.

He always emphasised the importance of getting to know patients in their own settings. Medical students visited patients in their homes, asking them about their problems and experience of health services. Social work students also spent time in the practice.

“Peter felt strongly that you couldn’t learn about general practice from reading a book, and he was thrilled when some of the best students at Guy’s chose general practice when they qualified,” said his widow, Jean, a nurse and midwife, who met her husband when they were both working at University College London hospital.

“We agreed that we would analyse problems fully from the start, help people to understand why they fell ill, encourage self reliance, and restrict prescribing to what was indicated for good medical reasons,” he wrote.

“Innovation was always encouraged and there was an emphasis on taking all aspects of a patient’s situation into account,” said Nigel Masters, a general practitioner in High Wycombe, who visited Lakeside as a student at Guy’s and then joined the practice in 1982, staying for 10 years. Families’ medical notes were grouped together in large folders, and staff were encouraged to draw out family trees.

John Howie, former professor of general practice at Edinburgh University, and coauthor with Michael Whitfield of a forthcoming book on academic general practice units, said, “Peter was one of a small group who championed medical student teaching in the early 1970s, when the climate for teaching of this kind was extremely difficult. He was also the first person to combine being a professor of general practice and regional adviser in general practice.”

Vice chairman of South East Thames regional health authority for 16 years, he also served on the attendance allowance board and was a trustee of the Thamesmead Community Association and a former president of the general practice section of the Royal Society of Medicine.

He was awarded the OBE in 1987 and retired in 1988, but maintained a keen interest in Thamesmead, writing the preface to an account of its history, Thamesmead: A Social History, by Virginia Wigfall, published in 2009.

A Clockwork Orange

“Peter came to Thamesmead when it was a building site, and his energy and commitment made him a key member of the community,” said Wigfall. Virginia Todd, a general practitioner who has worked at the practice for 31 years, believes his influence is still evident. “A Clockwork Orange was filmed here, and of course there are problems, but Thamesmead is still an exciting place to work, and that’s partly due to Peter’s approach. He believed staff could be energised. I’ll be 61 this week, and I still like coming in.”

Higgins leaves his wife, Jean, three sons, and a daughter.


Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:d2365


  • Peter Matthew Higgins, professor of general practice (b 1923; q 1947, University College Hospital, London), died on 10 June 2010 from bronchopneumonia, dementia, and old age.

  • Research: Thamesmead: dream to reality (BMJ 1982;285:1564-6, doi:10.1136/bmj.285.6354.1564); Research: Thamesmead: lessons learnt (BMJ 1982;285:1631-3, doi:10.1136/bmj.285.6355.1631); and Research: Acute nephritis and streptococcal sore throat: a prospective study in general practice (BMJ 1965;2:1156-60, doi:10.1136/bmj.2.5471.1156)

View Abstract

Sign in

Log in through your institution

Free trial

Register for a free trial to to receive unlimited access to all content on for 14 days.
Sign up for a free trial