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Dr Derek Harvey OBE (1928–2006)

Derek Harvey, who died on 31 March 2006 at the age of 78, spent twenty-five years of his professional life providing health care in Zambia, Oman, Brunei and Yemen where his medical expertise was perfectly matched to his love of bird watching in far flung lands. Born to a pastor father, once a missionary in China, and a music teacher mother, he attended Kingswood School in Bath and went on to earn his MB and BS at St Mary’s Hospital London in 1953. In the same year he married Meriel O’Hara, emulating his father by taking as his bride a vivacious woman with an AGSM in Piano, Violin and Viola. Derek first embarked on his medical career at Ashford Hospital Middlesex and then, following four years of service as a Graded Specialist Squadron Leader at RAF Halton, he set up a 5-member group practice in St. Columb Cornwall in 1958 where he and Meriel settled in with their young family. Fourteen years and five children later he exchanged the Cornish countryside for the African skies of Zambia. This was in 1972 and with the exception of one year as senior medical adviser to Shell International in London (1978), he led the life of an expatriate professional in Africa, Asia and Arabia until he retired in 1997 and returned to his beloved Lancefield House, a Grade II Listed home in Padstow, Cornwall.

Derek had both the administrative and practical medical expertise ideally suited to overseeing health care for large corporations in the field, such as Shell Aviation and Royal Brunei Airlines in Brunei, Shell Petroleum Development in Oman and Roan Consolidated Mines in Zambia. Total responsibility for field workers and their families in 22 clinics and a 35-bed hospital in Oman or a 100-bed hospital for Brunei Shell Petroleum, for instance, were meat and drink to him. His last posting from 1992–1997 saw him running the Joint Companies’ Clinic in Sana’a where he provided round the clock primary care and occupational medicine services to the large community of oil companies in Yemen.

This was the professional Derek Harvey. But he shall also be remembered for two further callings that dwelt within the same ample frame – that of an amateur ornithologist and of a consummate host. Amateur birder (his own description) does not really do justice to Derek’s commitment to avifauna. He used to say that ‘birding was something you did, like cleaning your teeth each day.’ Despite a heart condition and the dodgy hip that restricted his mobility, Derek ‘birded’ everywhere he went, noting and sharing his methodical observations. From his clinic in Sana’a he wrote a weekly column for The Yemen Times on Conservation in Yemen, headed up the Yemen Ornithological Society from 1993 to 1995, helped co-ordinate the Yemen records for the Atlas of Breeding Birds of Arabia (ABBA) and described the birdlife in his garden, contributing astute records of avian habits often overlooked by the bands of globetrotting twitchers who came through. His article ‘Wildlife Conservation Initiatives in Yemen’ (December 1999) in this journal followed his illustrated talk to the Society in January (see It demonstrates Derek’s effective advocacy of education and environmental protection in Yemen. He was a driving force in the initiatives that took place at governmental, multilateral and NGO levels in the 1990s. Without him one doubts that the preservation of the Aden wetlands, the Yemeni schools programme for bird conservation and the Biosphere project on Socotra would have been birthed so lustily. A tribute to Derek by Richard Porter can be read in Sandgrouse 28 (1), the journal of the Ornithological Society of the Middle East (OSME). Gavin Watkins, ODA vet in Yemen 1990–1994, recalls the fun and purpose of birding trips Derek organised to seemingly unlikely venues such as the Sana’a rubbish dumps and the Tihamah subkha. He was a ‘great enthuser’, said Watkins.

Derek made friends with discernment, grace and irrepressible bonhomie. One always found a refreshing welcome in his home – be it the luxury of a shower after weeks in the field, a glass of scotch tinkling with ice, sparkling conversation, intense exchange of news from the conflict-torn tribal areas outside Sana’a, encouragement and indefatigable assistance for one’s projects, or just a lively evening of bridge or chamber music. His and Meriel’s hospitality attracted diplomats, researchers, artists, travellers. One such friend and bridge partner, Tim Mackintosh-Smith, remembers fondly the ‘the magisterial ticking off’ Derek gave him once for having mistaken ravens for crows in his first book, Travels in Dictionary Land. Only Derek could make one feel at home while figuratively boxing one’s ears.

It is no surprise that Derek was awarded an OBE in 1995 for his service to the community in Yemen (the citation mentioning other career achievements such as President of Rotary International in Zambia). He also received the Silver Oak Leaves for Bravery shown in his general practice.

Here was a man who lived his life so well that his gift was contagious, and being around him quite simply made the world work better. He is survived by his wife, two sons and three daughters, and three grandchildren.

Francine Stone

The writer wishes to thank Richard Porter, Tim Mackintosh-Smith, David Stanton, Gavin Watkins and Meriel Harvey for their help in compiling this tribute.