Sir Michael Peckham, cancer pioneer, successful artist and esteemed ministerial adviser – obituary


Sir Michael Peckham, who died at the age of 86, was a pioneer in the treatment of cancers in young adults and helped transform cancer research in Europe in the 1970s and 1980s; abandoning clinical practice at age 50, he then enjoyed a successful second career as an “unlikely civil servant”, in the words of the New Scientist.

As the first Director of Research and Development at the Department of Health, he had a lasting impact on the organization of the NHS and went on to establish the School of Public Policy at University College London.

His work on combination chemotherapy for testicular cancer spurred one of the biggest comebacks in British sporting history, when jockey Bob Champion, whom he had treated for the disease, went to is restored to win the 1981 Grand National over Aldaniti.

Peckham was also a talented artist, exhibiting throughout his career. His first major exhibition, at the Bear Lane Gallery, Oxford, in 1964, received positive reviews, with The Guardian commenting on “the exact and sophisticated balance of colors and tones”.

In a 1989 lecture, Peckham discussed the importance of what he called “wildness,” or the ability to reclaim fragments of wasted time for creative purposes. This is a theme he returned to in an article on “The Art of Medicine” in The Lancet in 2018, in which he described his practice of making art in hotel rooms and airports at peak of his career as a cancer specialist.

Michael John Peckham was born in Panteg, Monmouthshire on August 2, 1935, and studied natural sciences at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, graduating as a doctor from University College London Medical School in 1959.

In 1960 he was called up to national service and spent two years as an officer in the East Anglian Second Brigade. Peckham drew on his experience working as a lone medical officer in an infantry battalion, and it was also an important catalyst for his art; his excavations have become a creative hub and an improvised gallery. Among the works produced at this time was the large iron sculpture “Protosterion”, built on land overlooking the Fens.

In 1965, Peckham received a grant from the Medical Research Council to work with Maurice Tubiana at the Gustave Roussy Institute in Paris on the cell biology of lymphoma. It has been an exciting time in medicine, with new developments in radiotherapy techniques to treat Hodgkin’s disease, as well as advances in immunotherapy and bone marrow transplantation.

It was also a period of transformation in art and politics, just before the student protests of May 1968. In Paris, Peckham met painter and printmaker Stanley Hayter, visiting his experimental studio, Atelier 17. in Villejuif . Paris was a turning point. Science added a new dimension to my clinical work and gave new impetus to my art.

He was fluent in French and his medical and artistic ties with the country continued throughout his life.

Peckham joined the Cancer Research Institute at the Royal Marsden Hospital and in 1973 he was appointed professor there. He has built a renowned team specializing in Hodgkin’s disease, lymphoma and testicular cancer, and has trained a generation of talented oncologists.

Peckham was aware of the dangers of subspecialization and the need to develop an integrated approach to cancer treatment. This holistic and collaborative approach inspired many of his initiatives, including the creation of the British Oncological Association in 1985.

He became a driving force in bringing research and clinical cultures together across Europe, helping to found the European School of Oncology in 1982 and creating the Federation of European Cancer Societies.

In 1986 he became Director of the British Postgraduate Medical Federation with the mission of supporting research at the major medical institutes at the University of London. Five years later, he was appointed the first director of research and development at the Ministry of Health.

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