It is with great sadness that I am reporting the death of David Delvin, 79.
I knew David as a colleague when he was medical editor at GP and I was editor; as a fellow member for some 30 years or more of the MJA Executive Committee; as a friend; as a man who made a historic contribution to medical journalism which freed up communication between medicine and the media, and finally, as a gentleman.
He was also one of the few doctors, perhaps the only one, to have been both the subject of a GMC complaint and a member of its Council.
The soft, gentle tone with which we were all familiar was at odds with the sharp edge and crusading zeal that characterised his GMC persona in his long fight over the Council’s links with South Africa. The GMC, he declared, was a reactionary, racist organisation “which tended to put the thumbscrews on Asian doctors who could not hit back”. Yes, gentle David didn’t mince his words.
I met last week a charming Oxford academic and historian, Dr Sally Frampton, who is compiling a proposal about the history of medical journalism in the second half of the 20th century. I told her that David was/is one of the most important people in the story. Although most of them don’t realise it, every medical practitioner who writes or talks to the media today is in David’s debt.
He began his media career as a newly qualified doctor in the 1960s when any doctor writing for publication risked exposing themselves to GMC scrutiny for ‘self-advertising’. Most doctors were justifiably afraid about either talking to journalists or writing for newspapers or magazines.
But David was a rebel reflecting the values of the swinging sixties – the revolt symbolised by The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, student uprising, the Civil Rights movement, CND, the Vietnam War movement, women’s liberation and the advent of the contraceptive pill, a driver of the sexual revolution. Nothing, it seemed, was sacred any more.
David was adamant that doctors should not be compelled to write under the cloak of pseudonyms, but was understandably alarmed when the GMC informed him, in 1974, that a complaint had been laid against him, alleging self-advertisement. He was at risk of being struck off.
Widely supported by medical colleagues, medical journalists and a wide range of newspapers and journals, he insisted that that he had done nothing wrong. The ‘offending’ articles included a series commended in the Medical Journalists’ Association awards.
The complaint was dropped within 50 days. Tony Thistlethwaite, the author of In Independent and Bloody Minded: the story of the MJA:1967-97, said: “The GMC showed common sense, but it was seven weeks of hell for David.”
Five years after being cleared by the GMC David himself joined the Council, partly fired, he later admitted, by a desire ‘to show the buggers’. He did just that, with style and commitment. Already well-versed in controversy and bucking the establishment, he had been a founder member of the Action Group of Junior Hospital Staff campaigning for better and conditions for junior doctors.
Born in 1939 London to an Irish mother and Scots father, he trained at King’s College after losing his mother at the age of 17. Her death influenced his decision to go into medicine. Qualifying in 1962 he worked at King’s College and in Brighton.
He married his first wife, Kathy, in 1966. They had three children. Immediately after marriage he worked for the Ministry of Overseas Development in Jamaica. He loved the country and its people and in 1967 began writing a weekly medical column in the famous Daily Gleaner. This continued for 50 years — perhaps a world record — until, in 2017, he became too ill to carry on.
Returning to the UK he combined general practice, sexual health and family planning with medical journalism, with a heavy emphasis on sex. He said: “It was apparent at medical school that most patients knew little about sex. Nor did many doctors. Medical students had no teaching at all about it, except one lecture on the cap, and one on abortion, infanticide and rape.” Sexual medicine attracted him, he said, because ‘you could put things right’.
After working with the Family Planning Association and the Institute of Psychosexual Medicine, he became a founding fellow of the Faculty of Family Planning of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. He appeared on 930 TV programmes and wrote 34 books, including The Book of Love which sold more than a million copies and became a family planning textbook.
Translated into more than ten languages as well as Braille, it won the American Medical Writers’ Association ‘Best Book’ award. He was bewildered to receive a medal (Médaille de la Ville de Paris) from former French president and prime minister Jacques Chirac.
But the heady blend of medicine, sex and journalism nearly finished him. The man who became the ‘Dr Bright and Breezy’ of sex education began writing professionally after a few paragraphs in The Guardian netted more than a week’s houseman’s salary. It was probably significant that The Book of Love, with its graphic images, was first published in 1974, the year of his GMC ordeal.
The book was a catalyst for videos such as The Lover’s Guide and TV programmes including The Good Sex Guide, the general tone of which was summed up in a sequence in a Solihull snooker club. Men were seen playing a ‘stick on the tail of the donkey’ game to find out if they knew where the clitoris was. (Half did.)
The language of Delvinese was similarly controversial. Witness his “Positions of the month” in She magazine simultaneously proclaimed as “naff” and “brilliant”.
Of “The Lean Back” or “Grenoble,” he wrote: “Some say that this is named after the town in the French Alps where you have to lie pretty far back to get a view of the mountain tops…it’s dead easy really. You begin by sitting astride him (facing him). Next, gently put him inside you — and then lean very slowly backwards till your head is on the bed, in the region of his feet. Conversation will not be easy now unless, of course, you ring him up on your cordless phone.”
Of Le Bergerac (nearly sideways on) he wrote: “Some folk say that’s named after the hero of the BBC TV series of the same name. Others claim that it has something to do with the sun-filled and agreeable Vin de Bergerac. Still others maintain that the position was the most favoured by Cyrano de Bergerac (he of the extremely long nose). All wrong, I’m afraid. I made the name up. “
He counted among his career highlights his tenure as the columnist Dr Jekyll in World Medicine, edited by the powerful Michael O’Donnell, one of his staunchest allies in his stand against the GMC. As the broadcaster and fellow MJA committee member Geoff Watts reported, Dr Jekyll took a bawdy delight in showing that the magazine’s highly qualified and intellectually gifted readership had a taste for salacious knockabout humour.
In 1988 David married fellow writer and TV presenter Christine Webber whom he met at Anglia TV. They collaborated on many books and journalistic and broadcasting projects. A She magazine profile in the 1980s noted that “Christine and Doc D always make a point of changing for dinner, however late in the day”. Dinner, she was reported as saying, was “such a romantic way to end the day”.
Christine tells me they continued changing for dinner until he was too ill to do so. It was their way of injecting romance into their lives. “We get many letters from women,” he added, “ whose partners have forgotten all about romance and who want a good bonk without any preliminaries.” He warned that many relationships fell apart because couples claimed that they hadn’t got time for romance.”
Just by way of something completely different, one of David’s major preoccupation while he was MJA chair and a longstanding committee was the constitution. It was as if he were its guardian. Just as generations of doctors are indebted to him, so are we. There will never be another quite like him. David was diagnosed with cancer 15 months ago. He is survived by three children and seven grandchildren.
Private family funeral. Christine is planning to celebrate David’s life at the Royal Society of Medicine in the summer.