Professor Derek Pheby

(St Thomas’, Medicine, 1969)

A cancer specialist who made strides in researching ME and who had a passion for poetry.

Professor Derek Pheby, who died in November last year at the age of 77, was a visiting professor of epidemiology at Buckinghamshire New University who specialised in cancer epidemiology and public health.

Midway through his career, he became increasingly involved in promoting greater scientific understanding about the enigmatic orphan of a disease, myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), after a member of his family became ill with the disease.

As a recently published poet, Derek Pheby appeared on BBC TV’s Mastermind in 1984, specialising in the life and works of his muse, John Keats. Right up until the time of his death, he was collaborating with his son on a book about pain, consciousness and the medieval female mystics and, since the invasion of Ukraine, had been working on a painting and poetry project to benefit children’s charities in that war-stricken country.

Derek Pheby had first degrees in science and medicine, and higher degrees in social policy and law.

After qualifying as a doctor at St Thomas’ Hospital in London, Derek started his professional life as a GP in the village of Coxwold on the North Yorkshire Moors. He then moved to the University of Bristol, where he specialised in cancer epidemiology and public health and became director of the South West of England Regional Cancer Registry.

He was the founding chair of the UK Association of Cancer Registries and, for some years, the UK representative on the permanent steering committee of the European Network of Cancer Registries.

In the 90s, he led a group that published annual reports about the emergence of clusters of congenital birth defects in areas close to hazardous waste tips. The Daily Mail gave prominent coverage to every one of those reports.

His mid-career challenge to master the scientific intricacies of ME, otherwise known as chronic fatigue syndrome, and help change the nation’s mindset about the disease, was pursued without let. He set up the multi-million-pound ME/CFS Observatory, was a key member of the steering group overseeing the work of the UK ME/CFS Biobank and was recruited to work on several national reports on the subject.

An avowed internationalist, Derek was also scientific co-ordinator of Euromene, the European research group on ME/CFS. Derek championed the work of the two main UK patient support groups, eventually becoming a patron of the ME Association.

His ME Association-funded report on the risk factors involved in the development of severe ME were seminal to public understanding of the subject.

Outside medicine, Derek remained happily engaged with poetry and politics until the time of his death. His collected poems were published in the anthology Being and Doing and Other Poems three years ago.

Derek leaves his wife Anita, two sons and a daughter, and three grandchildren. The funeral was held in Salisbury last December.

Details from this obituary have been taken from the obituary published on the ME Association website on 13 November 2022 by Dr Charles Shepherd.