Obituary Peter Iliff

July 27, 2011

In February 2011, Peter Illiff died, the secretary and one of the founders of ZADHR, IFHHRO’s member organisation in Zimbabwe. Recently, an obituary was published in The Lancet (Vol. 378, No. 9787), which we will share below.


Peter John Iliff

Paediatrician and defender of human rights in Zimbabwe. He was born on Oct 29, 1951, in Lahore, Pakistan, and died from renal cancer on Feb 1, 2011, in Harare, Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe in its current state is not the most convivial setting in which to practise paediatrics. When Peter Iliff went there in 1988, along with his obstetrician wife Virginia, circumstances were very different. “When they arrived the health system was functioning well by the standards of many developing countries”, according to Sunandra Ray, then a public health specialist in Harare. But during the latter half of Iliff’s two decades in the country, things went downhill. Yet throughout his time working in Zimbabwe he remained committed to working to improve the health of its people. Although Iliff did his medical training at the University of Cambridge and the London Hospital, life outside the UK was hardly a new experience.

Born to medical missionary parents based in Lahore he spent his early childhood in Pakistan. The year before he went up to Cambridge found him travelling and teaching English in Afghanistan. And after various jobs in paediatrics in London, Swindon, and Oxford he spent a couple of years working at the King Abdul Aziz Military Hospital in Saudi Arabia. From there he went to his final destination, Harare, as a lecturer with a special interest in neonatology at the University of Zimbabwe. But what was it about Africa that held him? Jonathan Green, professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at Manchester University in the UK and a friend since Cambridge days, thinks that Iliff had become disaffected with the prospect of the career he’d embarked upon in the UK. “I remember him saying to me once that he looked at the consultants who were heading up the firms he was in and feeling he didn’t want to be like them.” He became demoralised—not with paediatrics but with National Health Service medicine, thinking that much of the spark had been ground out of many of the people he saw in more senior positions.

When the couple first got to Zimbabwe Iliff was severely injured in a car accident. It was then, Green thinks, that he realised he was in a place where he wanted to stay. “It was something about how he was looked after there, and finding himself recovering in this culture.” Another friend from his student days, neonatologist Sandy Calvert of St George’s Hospital, London, says “Peter was very passionate about what he did, and very committed to his work.” The increasing malevolence of the Mugabe regime put that commitment to the test. Iliff’s response was not to pack up and go, but to stay and fight. In 2002 he and Virginia were part of a small group who founded the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights (ZADHR), of which he was still Secretary when he died. “At one point there was some pretty serious intimidation going on”, Ray recalls. “It included having our names on the front page of the newspaper accusing us of being British spies.”

Primrose Matambanadzo, ZADHR’s Coordinator, describes Iliff’s contribution as one of the main reasons that the organisation is still functioning. “With great integrity and bravery”, she says, “he contributed to ZADHR’s advocacy efforts against organised violence and torture”. Green describes Iliff as “a very modest guy and didn’t shout about this achievements. But he could be stubborn. He could be extremely outspoken.”

Although reluctant to part company with the neonatology unit he’d built up at the University of Zimbabwe, Iliff’s talents were well used in the research project of which he became Medical Director, and which occupied the last 10 years of his working life with a focus on HIV. ZVITAMBO, an acronymic shortening of Zimbabwe Vitamin A for Mothers and Babies, was set up in 1997 under the directorship of Jean Humphrey of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Its original aim had been to investigate the effect of a postpartum dose of vitamin A on mothers and infants; it found no significant effect. But the detailed information that had been collected showed several other findings, including the vital observation that exclusive breastfeeding helps reduce the risk of mother-to-child transmission of HIV. Illiff led ZVITAMBO’s HIV research and programme support work in rural areas. He was also involved with helping an HIV orphan outreach programme. Zvitambo is, appropriately, a word in the Shona language meaning precious—which is pretty much how Iliff viewed his adopted country. Besides his wife Virginia, he leaves a son and a daughter.

Source: Obituary Peter John Iliff, by Geoff Watts. The Lancet, Vol. 378, No. 9787, p. 222, 16 July 2011,