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Derek Bergel1932 – 2021

In piam Memoriam

All members of the Department and my colleagues at Merton College will be sad to hear of the death of Derek Bergel, Emeritus University Lecturer in Physiology and former Tutorial Fellow of Merton College.

Prior to Oxford, Derek Hugh Bergel qualified in medicine from St Bartholomew’s Medical Centre, London, before they appointed him a Lecturer in Physiology from 1957 until 1962.  During this period, he undertook seminal work on the The Visco-elastic Properties of the Arterial Wall.  He then went to the USA for a Fellowship at the prestigious John Hopkins University, Baltimore, from 1962 to 1964. He returned to the UK to a lectureship at The Royal Postgraduate Medical School in London.

In 1968, Derek moved to Oxford and was appointed to a University Lectureship in Physiology by Professor David Whitteridge FRS. This was associated with the Ann Rork and Rudolph Light Research Fellowship at St Catherine’s College, where he also became Tutor in Medicine until 1977. He then became a Special Fellow of Merton College from 1983, and Tutor in Medicine from 1984-1991.

Derek was an outstanding cardiovascular physiologist and edited two classic monographs on cardiac mechanics, which William Harvey would have taken delight in reading, most notably “Cardiovascular Fluid Dynamics” published in 1972.  He took early retirement from his university post in 1991, but remained a College Tutor, indeed Senior Tutor until 1993.  Derek was much admired by his colleagues in the University and adored by his pupils at Merton. His tutorials were exacting and 'trial by pipe smoke', is a common theme expressed in the tributes below.

Several of my colleagues have written to me and wished to share their memories of Derek.

“Derek Bergel was my introduction both to the Physiology Department and to St Catherine’s when I arrived at St Hugh’s and what was then the Department of Human Anatomy in Oxford in 1977. Derek was, for me, an invaluable guide to the nuances of college tutorial teaching in Oxford. I shall long remember him sitting in his office in Sherrington, puffing on his pipe, and giving me really helpful insights both on the ‘dos and don’ts’ of Oxford teaching and on my other new-found colleagues.” (John Morris, Emeritus Professor of Human Anatomy)

“I knew Derek as Safety Officer when he came pipe in hand to my lab to discuss certain toxins and radioactive compounds. His sabbatical year, passed in remoter regions of Kashmir made him think about taking an interest in psychiatry, but it didn’t happen. He felt he had got as far as he could with vascular research. He was contemplating a book about heart and blood vessels, but Levick’s book appeared, and Derek thought it good. He was a good tutor and sensible examiner, despite coming from the London Hospital scene, which was rather different.

            I went to the Himalayas twice with Derek and Peggy, one occasion involving him in some serious experiments, the second more of a vacation. Subsequently we were neighbours in the Pyrenees for 20 years, and made many excursions into the mountains, talking about everything under the sun, including science, politics and local customs. For many years he lived in Canaveilles in a house previously owned by Professor Conway, and when he moved to an even remoter place at Moncles, he set up a tontine with his and Peggy’s extensive heirs, a process he found legally fascinating.

            Derek was generous, and faithful to his family and friends. Jane and I missed seeing as much of him when he moved down to Ceret to be nearer his sons, and now we shall miss him dearly.” (Clive Ellory, Emeritus Professor of Human Physiology and former Head of Department: University Laboratory of Physiology)

"I was so sorry to read of Derek’s death.  I remember him (and his pipe!) with affection as he interviewed me all those years ago (along with Clare Bass and Cliff Webb) when I applied for the role of Assistant Tutorial Secretary.  He was a charming man with a great sense of humour and I am sure will be hugely missed by all his colleagues." (Julie Gerhardi, Graduate Officer, Merton College)

“Derek Bergel was a large presence in the reference list for my DPhil thesis before ever I met him. Derek had picked up the batten from Charles Roy, Professor of Pathology in Cambridge from 1884, who had written the first major appreciation of the anomalous time-dependent mechanical properties of blood vessels in The Journal of Physiology in 1881 and left many questions unanswered by his early death at the age of 43 in 1897. It might be a bit of a simplification to say that little progress was made in the intervening years, but Derek’s PhD thesis on The Visco-elastic Properties of the Arterial Wall at the University of London in 1960, and the subsequent classic papers on ‘static’ and ‘dynamic’ properties of arteries, were important advances in the field into which I found myself immersed after graduating in Engineering Science in 1974. My undergraduate tutor and doctoral supervisor, Gerry McCrum of Hertford College, was focused on us separating out the viscoelastic properties and the rubber-like entropy elasticity of the protein elastin that made up much of the arterial wall. This we duly did, and Derek was the natural Internal Examiner for my thesis in 1977.

            I had been encouraged in my academic career by being awarded a Senior Scholarship for doctoral studies at Christ Church, complete with a ‘penthouse’ flat on the top of their Blue Boar Quadrangle, from the high balcony of which I could view much of the goings on in that corner of Oxford. A fourth year was available to me, but I had finished my DPhil after three years of the scholarship courtesy of Gerry’s very dynamic approach to getting things done. My elastin had got me interested in studying Medicine, and it was Derek Bergel himself who remarkably agreed to admit me to study pre-clinical Medicine at St Catherine’s College. In some unfathomable way, I was able to live in Christ Church and walk over to Catz for my tutorials. Physiology was with Derek and anatomy was with John Morris.

            A tutorial with Derek was also a tutorial with Derek’s pipe. A ritual of the relighting of a pipe that kept extinguishing itself accompanied the biophysics and the cardiovascular, respiratory, and much other physiology that Derek covered. He dutifully wrote comments on my fairly dreadful essays and patiently helped me to cope with having come to Medicine with very little chemistry and biology and rather too much maths. My memory of Derek is of a wonderfully supportive and encouraging tutor in that tradition of both being a leading figure in the field and having time for those who know very little.” (Keith Dorrington, Emeritus Associate Professor of Physiology)

"I arrived in Oxford in 1971 to take up a DPhil with Derek in the University Laboratory of Physiology (now DPAG). He was a wonderfully warm and supportive supervisor – much appreciated by a kiwi engineer completely new to Physiology and of course to Oxford traditions. I participated enthusiastically in his sophisticated experimental measurements on dog hearts – and I’ll never forget the expression on his face when he accidently cut through a £1000 Millar catheter! He graciously tolerated my insistence on an engineering mathematics approach to the analysis of the data.

            Some of my treasured memories are travelling to London and Leiden with Derek for meetings of the ‘MacDonald Club’ – a group who met regularly to discuss cardiovascular research. Derek’s lab was right next to those of Julian Jack and Denis Noble, and also close to Charles Michel’s lab, so I soon had the good fortune of being able to bring my mathematical approaches to a wider group of world class physiologists who were all keen to use quantitative modelling approaches to the interpretation of their complex data. It was an exciting time, and I will always be grateful to Derek for his mentorship and support." (Professor Peter Hunter FRS FRSNZ Director Auckland Bioengineering Institute)

"Despite being a non-smoker, I didn't find our weekly research discussions as asphyxiating as your contributors make out, perhaps because they took place in his large top-floor office in Physiology, where Peter and I both had perching rights.  I invariably came away from these chats charged up to the hilt with enthusiasm and new ideas.  Part of Derek's prowess was his comprehensive knowledge of the literature, including the very latest articles.  We set out to examine what were at the time puzzling observations going back over two hundred years (if one had the wit as he did to see the connections) of high-flow arterial dilatation, unsatisfactorily explained by Sidney Hilton of Birmingham.  We got close enough that Derek (not me) was able to hypothesize that something was being emitted or taken up by vascular endothelium, and had it not been for my lack of surgical finesse and Hilton's opposition when we did attempt a paper in J. Physiol., we might have beaten Robert Furchgott to the discovery of NO by five years.

            At the time I was too green to appreciate Derek fully.  It was only when I took up a postdoc with the same person at Johns Hopkins as Derek had so done a decade or two earlier that I came to see how exceptional Derek's invariable kind and invigorating support had been, no matter how far I had fallen short or what infelicity I had committed.  I now count myself extremely fortunate to have had him as my (joint) DPhil supervisor, and regard him as one of two academic mentors for which I shall be forever grateful.

            I visited Canaveilles twice, once with a girlfriend, with Derek having generously as ever given me the keys, and the second time when I spent a sabbatical year at Ecole Polytechnique in 2011, and drove down to the Pyrenees to spend a happy few days with him.  He was as sharp and cheerful as ever, but a little restricted in mobility, such that he chose to potter at home while I roamed the mountains with his equally accepting dog.  He showed me what was then his summer retreat, and I believe this was the even-more-remote house at Moncles to which you refer.

            To me, Derek was an original, who appeared to be revered by all those who came in contact with him.  I am fortunate to have known him, and he continues to influence me in my interactions with students and research colleagues" (Professor C.D. Bertram School of Mathematics and Statistics University of Sydney)

A recurring theme here is Derek’s pipe, his kindness, and friendship shown to his pupils and colleagues.  I was fortunate to experience the latter, and endure the former, as he and the external examiner (D.M. Band) both ‘piped away’ for three and half hours during my viva, which the tea lady who appeared at the half way stage, noted was a trial by asphyxiation. After Derek retired, he joined my new lab where we had much fun measuring cerebral flow using the hydrogen clearance technique.  Remarkably there were no explosions, although the occasional blue flame appeared.   He continued with tutorial teaching in the Department where the uncomplaining students would leave his smoked filled office better for the (intellectual) experience, but a paler shade of grey.  He would edit the journal Cardiovascular Research with Peter Sleight over tea in the common room with Christine (secretary), and when neither could agree on whether to accept or reject a manuscript, Christine decided! 

In 1991, I invited Derek, Peggy and Clive on a high-altitude physiology expedition to Nepal.  They joined an eclectic group from down under, along with John Coote from Birmingham.   It was a very happy expedition that bonded. Derek was in his element; Kathmandu was still in its hippy phase and not overly commercialised.  After a rough overnight bus trip, we hitched a ride on an old helicopter (taking supplies up to base camp) flown by ex-Soviet pilots out of Afghanistan, which subsequently crashed a year later.   We met Ed Hillary in Kunde (who was not well), ate some terrible food, did experiments and suffered together.  But I am sure Derek and Clive dined out on this in Oxford as they came back looking 10 years younger.  I was pleased that the experience was not overly traumatising since they returned again for a vacation.   As a young academic I was fortunate to have experienced the likes of Derek Bergel, John Coote and Abe Guz in the lab and in the field.  Derek would always send a card to Merton wishing us good fortune for the start of the academic year.   He travelled well through the ups and downs of life, and left a valuable mark on those he encountered.  A Tutor’s tutor, he is already missed dearly.  (Professor David Paterson)

Merton College flying a flag at half-mast to mark the passing of Dr Derek Bergel on 9 December 2021.

The Merton College flag flying for Dr Bergel at half-mast.