Obituary for Geoffrey Mottram Durbin FRCP, FRCPCH.

Consultant Neonatologist
Born 1944. Qualified: New College, Oxford 1969
Died on 18/05/23 from complications of Alzheimer’s disease


Geoffrey (Geoff) Durbin was born into a family steeped in socialism. His mother studied under Hugh Gaitskell and his father, Evan, was a Labour MP and minister in Atlee’s post-war government who sadly drowned when Geoff was just three years old.

Geoff studied medicine at New College, Oxford, completing his clinical training at University College London and qualified in 1969.

In 1973 he became a research fellow in Sir Osmund Reynolds’ team at University College London, one of the early pioneers of intensive care for babies particularly those born prematurely. Geoff was at the heart of this work from the very start, undertaking research into continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy for hyaline membrane disease, and on identifying the risk factors associated with intracranial haemorrhage.

In 1977, Geoff moved to Birmingham, initially as a lecturer and then in 1980 as the first full-time neonatologist at the Birmingham Maternity hospital. He set about developing the unit, offering, for the first time, life-sustaining support for premature babies.

He was passionate about research supporting many fellows over the years, focusing particularly on intestinal function and the nature, progression and long-term effects of brain injury in preterm infants. He was an early advocate of the use of CPAP, breast milk feeding and breast milk banks, pulse oximetry, caffeine as a respiratory stimulant and neurodevelopmental follow-up.

Geoff’s focus was always on the best outcome for babies, recognising that there were some that intensive care could not help. He worked equally hard to ensure these babies and their parents received the highest-quality support. Geoff had very high standards for himself and others and he was an inspirational teacher. Few who experienced it will forget the teaching sessions where he dismantled a ventilator circuit and then asked his trainees to reassemble it. He challenged his trainees to think and always conveyed his passion for the care of babies and their families and how important their lifelong wellbeing was to him.

He played a key role in the service development of neonatal care both locally in the West Midlands and nationally within the British Association of Perinatal Medicine (BAPM). In 2007 he was awarded honorary membership of BAPM.

He continued as Director of the Unit at Birmingham Maternity Hospital (later the Birmingham Women’s Hospital) until his retirement in 2007. In addition, he was co-medical director of Birmingham Women’s Hospital and held many regional roles particularly supporting junior doctor training. When he started there was one full-time, two part-time consultants, three junior doctors and 28 Neonatal Nurses.

When he retired there were seven full-time consultants, 14 Junior doctors and more than 100 nurses including advanced nurse practitioners and allied professionals, reflecting the enormous success and expansion of the project he began there. 

Following retirement from clinical practice, Geoff continued his medicolegal work, always on the side of the families and children. He remained in Birmingham, and became a much more active member of the Labour party.

Geoff was funny and entertaining, and he loved good food, fine wine, walking, skiing and travelling. He was devoted to his family. His illness – Alzheimer’s disease – was particularly cruel, taking away the very things he excelled at and lived for.

He is survived by his wife Anne, his children, Sarah, Lindsey, Isabel and Jonathan, and by his four grandchildren.

By Andrew Ewer, Anne Durbin.

Obituary originally published in the BMJ.

British Association of Perinatal Medicine (BAPM) is registered in England & Wales under charity number 1199712 at 5-11 Theobalds Road, London, WC1X 8SH.
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