Director of Public Health
Qualified 1953 Durham
MD FFPH FRCA
Died 01/01/2022 Pneumonia following fractured neck of femur.
Gordon Pledger qualified at Durham University in 1953 and served for four years as a Royal Air Force medical officer in Aden (Squadron Leader). He worked in Norfolk, Liverpool, Newcastle and Northumberland, and in 1965 was appointed as a consultant anaesthetist in Aberdeen, specialising in paediatrics. In 1969, when children were still anaesthetised by ether on a cloth, he moved into the developing sphere of public health, working in Oxford, Northampton, his birthplace of Newcastle, and Northumberland. His roles included those of Director of Public Health, Area and Regional Medical Officers, and Honorary Senior Lecturer in Public Health at Newcastle University. The latter followed his resignation from a medical officer role having cautioned at national level against the introduction of general managers into senior strategic NHS roles (Griffiths Report).
He was strongly influenced by his early experiences of poor health outcomes in mining communities, developing a lifelong passion for population health and the need to tackle the social determinants of health. He was an early campaigner for the compulsory wearing of seatbelts and established breast screening for women in the northeast ahead of national programmes. He also advocated equal opportunities for women in medicine, working with leading colleagues in Oxford to promote changes to working practises.
His publications reflected his varied career, ranging in subject from childhood deaths in appendicitis to triage in nuclear war, and comparisons of decision making between doctors and airline pilots.
Following his retirement in 1992 he became a long-standing medical referee to the City of Newcastle, overseeing many thousands of death certificates. Notably, he had a paper rejected by the Lancet in which he advocated a change to certification of death, saying that the process at the time did not reliably detect homicide. This was alluded to in the third Shipman inquiry report, for which he was a major contributor, and his recommendations for change form part of the current death certification process. He was also involved in the Alder Hey tissue retention inquiry.
In his late fifties he renewed his early passion for flying, spending many hours gliding from Sutton Bank and the Scottish borders, and taking family on excursions from Newcastle in his small plane.
He was a loving and much beloved gentle man, highly regarded by his colleagues who often described him as truly inspiring, incredibly supportive and kind. He never lost his deep love of medicine, and right to his last months would happily discuss clinical issues in detail and debate strategic health policies. He died peacefully in a general hospital that he commissioned and on whose board he had served as a non-executive director. He leaves his wife of 67 years, 5 children, 7 grandchildren and 4 great grandchildren, with a legacy of two medics and many healthcare workers.
His last words in the BMJ in 2011 are poignant:
“For general use I think a useful working definition (of health) is the ability to work, love, and sleep”. I would add ‘to die well.’ He did all of these in his usual dignified quiet way and he will be deeply missed.
Dr Sarah E Pledger MRCGP FFSRH