Obituary: Centenarian GP who claimed to be able to 'cure' NHS

Dr Susan Palmer, who was known by all as Sue, spent 30 years working as a GP in Dereham

An inspiration: Dr Susan Palmer, who was known by all as Sue, spent 30 years working as a GP in Dereham. Here she is pictured in 1953 - Credit: SUPPLIED

A highly-respected and much-admired retired doctor, who once claimed to be able to “cure the woes of the NHS in a stroke”, has died aged 100. 

For Dr Susan Palmer, the solution to the health service's problems was a relatively straightforward one... doctors should work longer hours.

She certainly set an example herself, spending up to 168 hours per week working as a GP, and was renowned throughout her career for her foresight in organising her time wisely.

She once described putting up a sign nine months before Christmas which said she did not want to spend the festivities delivering babies.  

While on other occasions, she would leave a basket of her own apples in the waiting room under a sign reading: "An apple a day keeps the patients at bay".  

Refuting this, Norfolk and Norwich Liver Group chairman, Bill Dingle, said: “Dr Susan certainly never wanted to keep patients at bay.  

“She was a lovely caring dedicated doctor.” 

A memorable childhood: Dr Susan Palmer was the youngest born of two daughters

A memorable childhood: Dr Susan Palmer was the youngest born of two daughters - Credit: SUPPLIED

The youngest daughter of Leonard Palmer and Mabel Georgina, Lindsey Susan Holme Palmer was born on May 15, 1921, in South Kensington, London. She joined her sister Jacqueline and would continue to always be known as Sue.  

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During the 1920s, the family moved to Possingworth Manor in Sussex - where General Bernard Montgomery and General Dwight Eisenhower would later meet to discuss plans for D-Day. 

Here, the family had all manner of servants, including maids and a cook, chauffeur, and nanny, but following the Great Depression, they moved to the Channel Islands with houses in both Guernsey and Alderney.  

Today, the Alderney property, the Nunnery, is listed as one of the region’s unique heritage sites. Its garden houses part of the Atlantic Wall built by prisoners of war (POW) during the German occupation. Dr Palmer returned on her 90th birthday for a surprise visit. 

Educated in both the Channel Islands and the Normandy region of France, she gathered a good knowledge of French life and its language. Many years later, she would use this to translate a book discovered in the village of Aunay Sur Odon.

The book described how it had been completely destroyed by Allied bombing raids in just five days. So appalled by the number of civilian casualties, Dr Palmer translated and printed the book with the proceeds given to the residents.

During the Second World War, the family left in a hurry for England when the Channel Islands were invaded by Germans. Restricted in what they could take, Mr Palmer was forced to shoot the family dog, while the young Sue grabbed the wrong suitcase, arriving in England with homemade curtains instead of essentials. 

Lifelong dream: Dr Susan Palmer went on to achieve her dream of becoming a doctor

Lifelong dream: Dr Susan Palmer went on to achieve her dream of becoming a doctor, pictured in 1953 - Credit: SUPPLIED

From 1940, the family lived near Guildford, Surrey, where Dr Palmer pursued a lifelong wish of becoming a doctor. She travelled by train into London every day, doing the majority of her training at Hammersmith Hospital. With the war still raging, students took turns during bombing raids, acting as lookouts on the hospital’s roof. 

In 1947, a newly-qualified Dr Palmer began working at a practice in Barnstaple, Devon, before working at Norwich’s Jenny Lind Hospital. In 1954, she moved to Dereham and is believed to have been the county’s first female GP, causing “quite a stir” at the time. 

In 1958, she purchased Dereham's 17th-century building, Hill House, situated on the junction of Theatre Street and Wellington Street at the top of Market Place. This became the surgery until her retirement in 1981 when she sold the property.

Historian Susan Palmer with the new flag at Dereham.Photo: Andy DarnellCopy: Chris HillFor: ED

A proud moment: Historian Susan Palmer with the new flag at Dereham - Credit: Archant © 2009

During her time as Dereham’s GP, Dr Palmer treated many former veterans, including Far East POWs (FEPOW) who had suffered terrible cruelty. Over time, she gained their trust and respect, enabling her to diagnose many with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

One of her fellow doctors was Harold Churchill, who had been a FEPOW, and together they co-wrote the book Prisoners on the Kwai. She was also the brainchild behind the FEPOW memorial, based next to Dereham’s war memorial.

She became an integral part of the FEPOW community and was made an honorary member of the National FEPOW Fellowship Welfare Remembrance Association and the Children and Families of FEPOW. 

A copy of the co-written book by Dr Susan Palmer and Dr Harold Churchill

Working together: A copy of the co-written book by Dr Susan Palmer and Dr Harold Churchill - Credit: SUPPLIED

In 2013, aged 92, she visited Le Paradis in France to honour the 97 soldiers of the Royal Norfolk Regiment who were massacred by Germans in May 1940. The pilgrimage was organised by Dereham’s Royal British Legion president, Dennis O’Callaghan, whose father survived.  

Dr Palmer was also the pioneer behind Dereham Disabled Club and purchased a 40-seater coach and had it transformed with beds. With volunteers, she took numerous disabled people across Europe and around the UK. 

Finally, she was awarded a Dereham Community Award for her support of the town, as well as supporting the Friends of the Norfolk Dialect and relentlessly pursuing a love of social history. 

Picture of Archiving Rural Community History (ARCH) event at Dereham Football club for archiving gro

Archiving history: Dr Susan Palmer from the ARCH Dereham group with the copy of the Dereham Survey 1251, which she made from the original more than 60 years ago - Credit: Archant © 2009

During her last few years, she lived at the Crown Residential Home, Little Dunham, and prior to the pandemic would welcome countless visitors and have picnics in the countryside, often accompanied by a mandatory glass of her favourite wine or a gin and tonic. 

Her 100th birthday comprised a picnic in the home’s garden where she received a card from the Queen.

Happy birthday: Dr Susan Palmer celebrating her 100th birthday with a gin and tonic

Happy birthday: Dr Susan Palmer celebrating her 100th birthday with a gin and tonic - Credit: SUPPLIED

Long-time friends and executors, Gerry and Lynda Norden, said: “Most of us will remember Sue for her wonderful humour and use of the English language, which prevailed right up until the end. 

“Her specific written instructions for her funeral were signed off ‘cheerio - here I go!’ - such was her humour.” 

Dr Palmer died on February 13. A private funeral took place on February 23. In line with her wishes, her ashes will be “broadcast” on the Brecks on Tuesday, March 29. At the same time, Dereham Town Council will fly the Union Jack with black pennant in her honour. 

Retired doctor could “cure the woes of the NHS in a stroke” 

Editing projects: Dr Susan Palmer helped to edit a memoir of a Norfolk childhood

Editing projects: Dr Susan Palmer helped to edit a memoir of a Norfolk childhood - Credit: SUPPLIED

On July 2, 2018, during a talk to the Norfolk and Norwich Liver Group, a then-aged 92-year-old Susan Palmer said she could "cure the woes of the NHS in a stroke". 

Dr Palmer, who also gave an account of her life as a GP from 1954 to 1981, said the problems with the NHS could be remedied by requiring doctors to work longer hours. 

She said she remembered times when she worked 168 hours in a week. 

The late Dr Andy Marczewski succeeded Dr Palmer when she retired as a Dereham GP in 1981.