Roger de Vere: Gynaecologist whose bedside manner earned him the nickname 'Divine de Vere'

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Roger de Vere was a leading gynaecological surgeon and a gifted teacher and clinician.

At Westminster Hospital he was known by his patients as the "Divine de Vere" and loved for his warmth and gentleness of manner. With the anaesthetist Dr JB Wyman, he explored the benefits of a new form of epidural anesthetic to relieve the pain of childbirth. When asked about this, he replied that his reason was simple: he could not bear to hear the sound of women in pain.

Especially in retirement, De Vere was also a dedicated countryman. He was an excellent shot, a keen fly fisher and a dedicated naturalist. He was a founder-member of Action for the River Kennet (ARK), an influential pressure group formed out of concern for the declining condition of one of Britain's best-known trout streams. The group met regularly at his home by the river, a converted mill-house, around a glass table-top built on the old mill wheel. Through his efforts, which included a privately commissioned study, the cause of the river's failing ecology was belatedly diagnosed as phosphate pollution, something the National Rivers Authority (now the Environment Agency) had strenuously denied. Thanks largely to De Vere, phosphate-stripping equipment is now in place on sewage treatment works along the river.

Roger de Vere was born in 1921, the son of the classics scholar Gaston du Chene de Vere and related on his mother's side to the American illustrator Garth Williams. He was educated at Beacon Hill School by his father's friend Bertrand Russell, from whom he ran away several times and whose scholastic technique he recalled with the remark that "it is wrong to experiment on children". As a result he began his secondary education unable to do his times tables. Fortunately, he caught up quickly. In 1939 he started training for a medical career at St Thomas' Hospital in London, qualifying with a LRCP (Licentiate, Royal College of Physicians). He was subsequently made a FRCS (Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons) and FRCOG (Fellow of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists).

He served with the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve in the immediate postwar years, honing his skills as a surgical specialist on hospital ships in the Far East. Most of De Vere's subsequent career was based at Westminster Hospital, where he often worked with his close friend Sir Rustam Feroze. The two made a formidable team, and De Vere's meticulous techniques made operations seem straightforward even when they were far from routine. De Vere was also a gifted clinician and, among other innovations, began a multi-disciplinary clinic to study conditions affecting the vulva, the first of its kind in Britain. He is also the author of numerous studies published in medical journals referred to around the world. He was characteristically modest about his achievements, but his natural kindliness led many of the patients whose babies he delivered, or whose lives he saved, to become lifelong friends.

Later in his career, De Vere devoted much time to teaching, and was an external examiner for final Obstetric and Gynaecological courses at Cambridge, London and Birmingham. Closer to home, he helped to found the Ridgeway Hospital in Swindon, a provider of independent health care, serving as chairman of its medical advisory committee. He retired early at 62 to nurse his devoted wife, Liz, who suffered from kidney failure.

He enjoyed a very active retirement. He ran a shoot at Mildenhall in the Kennet Valley, and later at Savernake Forest. He spent many happy hours fly-fishing on the Kennet, and was chairman of the local Savernake Flyfishers. This led directly to his concern for the apparently declining quality of the river, and his expose of its cause. He enjoyed re-telling the reaction of Professor Gareth Rees, whose reaction on seeing "sewage fungus" on the once crystal-clear waters, was to exclaim: "My God, you've got a major phosphate problem here!" Dealings with distant and often dilatory official bodies proved the necessity of a watchdog. ARK is now regarded as one of the most effective local environmental pressure groups. Having helped to found it with his friend Jack Ainslie, De Vere continued to serve as vice-chairman, having declined the chair with his usual modesty.

Having served for a while as a consultant in Paris, he was a fluent French speaker. He enjoyed painting and birdwatching, especially the kingfishers and other birds that visited his corner of the river. He enjoyed telling humorous anecdotes and often risqué stories and jokes, of which he had an immense store. He was fascinated by "what makes people tick" and ex-plored what he called "the human condition" throughout his life. It was for his combination of qualities – warmth, dedication, wisdom and authority – that Country Life magazine made him their Countryman of the Year in 1997. A similar admiration led the CPRE (Campaign to Protect Rural England) to present him with its rarely bestowed medal for his contributions to the protection of the countryside.

Roger Duchene de Vere, physician, gynaecologist and countryman: born Whitney, Oxfordshire 26 May 1921; St Thomas's Hospital Medical School and other hospitals 1939-54; Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve 1945-47; Westminster Hospital 1954-84; chairman, Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists Examinations Committee 1977-80; Country Life Countryman of the Year 1997; married 1954 Elizabeth Crothers Parker (died 2007; two sons, one daughter); died near Marlborough, Wiltshire 30 November 2010.