Obituary: Jimmy Steele, professor of dentistry and oral health, lecturer, birdwatcher and conservationist
Not many professors of Dentistry would choose to spend their Saturdays crouched behind a telescope on a windswept headland, or clambering over a rocky outcrop in a wetsuit to collect lobsters. A lover of the natural world and internationally respected bird watcher, these were just some of the many eclectic passions Jimmy enjoyed in a life cut short, but lived to its maximum.
A renowned figure in dentistry, his work had international reach but his influence was greatest in those he encountered in person. A charismatic teacher of generations of students at Newcastle University, Jimmy became Head of the School of Dental Sciences in 2009. The pinnacle of his career came with the publication of the Steele Review – an Independent Review of NHS Dentistry in 2009 commissioned by the Department of Health, and for which he was awarded a CBE in 2012. The aim of this was to ensure patients received the best and most effective care possible, reflecting ideals he did not compromise on during his career.
Born in Fairmilehead, Edinburgh, to Christelle and George, originally from Glasgow, and younger brother of Alison, he was educated at the Royal High School, excelling in his studies and going on to study Dentistry at Dundee University. He graduated with commendation in 1985, subsequently working in Glasgow. He married Katie, who he had met in university, in 1987 and they moved to Newcastle in 1989 with Jimmy taking up a post as Clinical Lecturer in the Dental school.
His research included work in primary care, clinical trials, health economics and quality of life measurement and he authored or contributed to several books in areas such as restorative and preventative dentistry. Clinical and academic success led to promotion to honorary Consultant in 1999 and Professor of Oral Health Services in 2003. His wife, Katie simultaneously rose to be a successful figure in the university, now a Professor of Neuromuscular Genetics.
Other distinctions included Fellowships from the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and London, receiving the prestigious John Tomes Medal from the British Dental Association and the International Association of Dental Research Geriatric Oral Research Award. In addition, he was oral and dental research lead for the UK Clinical Research Network (NIHR) and one of the University Orators, relishing the opportunity to contribute to honorary degree ceremonies.
From a young age, Jimmy developed a love for the natural world and particularly bird-watching, stunning teachers at the age of just 6 when he correctly identified a Rock Pipit during a school trip. This love was nurtured especially through family holidays to the tiny coastal village of Crovie in Aberdeenshire and roaming the Pentland hills close to his childhood home. His interest in birds brought him some early fame in 1974, Jimmy being the subject of a golf column piece in the Scotsman titled “the laughing ornithologist” after his bird watching whilst caddying for his father in a golf tournament was noted. At university, he was a founding member of Fife bird club and the logo he designed can still be seen on hides and the club newsletter. His move to Newcastle led to him becoming a well-respected exiled Scottish birder in Northumberland, where his local “patch” was Newbiggin-by-the-sea.
He was diagnosed with a glioblastoma in December 2015, and managed to complete the final six months of his term as Head of Dental School. Following this, he focused on spending time with his family and friends, passing on his concerns about climate change, local conservation and social justice, whilst indulging his passions especially, of course, birds. This led to trips to Orkney, Islay, Barra, Iona, Ullapool, Nairn, Cape Wrath, Fife, and of course his beloved Crovie in his final 18 months.
He is survived by his mother, Christelle, sister Alison, children Tom and Jenny and wife, Katie as well as friends, colleagues and family around the world.