Peter spent his life breaking moulds. Now for a dentist and periodontist that might give you the wrong impression, but I mean it in the most positive way, so let me explain. Peter was born into a society where everything had to fit an already prescribed mould. Black or white, male or female, scholarly or stupid. All those labels were meant to define you. Whites ruled, men played sport, and only the scholarly succeeded. Yet Peter spent his life majestically fighting against those moulds and combining things that appear opposites, holding the seemingly paradoxical in a uniquely Peter way.
Perhaps he wouldn’t have even known to break the mould if the first had not been thrust upon him. He should and would have happily stayed in the position of son and big brother, only having to worry about the usual teenage struggles, but Peter wasn’t afforded such comfort in life. His dad died when Peter was only twelve, from the same brutal brain tumour that brings us here today, and changing the role that Peter had in life forever. Peter became the responsible one, the carer, the one who fixed things and made things better for everyone, always. Whether it was taking a paternal role in his brother Keith’s early life or helping their mum Pondy to just keep going.
the master of ingenuity, creatively fixing things
His stature added to the image of someone you naturally gravitated to in order to make everything OK and he was the master of ingenuity, creatively fixing things. From those things that really mattered to the totally absurd. He saw that the research of many doctor and dentists was based on misleading data because their understanding of how to use statistics was flawed. So he devoted his PhD to trying to fix the problem for all medics in the future. Yet some issues he fixed were not quite on that scale, whether building a scaffolding type structure to prop up the computer monitor cake for one of Saul’s childhood birthday parties, when the angle of the monitor to the keyboard parts of the cake just wasn’t giving it an authentic enough tilt or making a contraption to hold loom bands so that Dory could get creative without subjecting Oli to sitting still and holding them for her. Peter never tired of fixing, never saw that role come to an end, even when the combination of the stroke and the tumour would have left others sitting frustrated and only thinking about what they couldn’t do, Pete was building net structures to protect the cherry tree, and climbing ladders to put things away and continue the home improvements.
Peter never shied away from problem solving, he saw the world with its problems there to be challenged and fixed, from governmental structures to community and workplaces. Apartheid rallies gave him his voice and ensured he felt a sense of responsibility to change the lives of others. And he certainly changed the life of one particularly attractive woman who, when the police used tear gas to break up an all-night vigil, Peter offered her a hanky as they made their escape together. More than fifty years of marriage followed that thoughtful gesture. Only Peter could find love while battling hatred and fear. But that’s how Peter broke so many moulds. By taking the opposites and making it fit comfortably together.
Romance and tear gas, dentistry and acupuncture, science and spirituality
It’s how he was able to be an illustrious, well respected periodontist, who wrote the textbooks on periodontics and yet appreciated the great value of acupuncture, homeopathy and complimentary medicines, learning its value in place of traditional anaesthesia. Romance and tear gas, dentistry and acupuncture, science and spirituality. Paradoxes some people might hear but Peter was open to seeing things through his own eyes and not being told what he should think.
Perhaps that is part of the aversion to authority but it says more about how Peter lived his life. Not through what he was told to do. Not stuck in a pattern of what he thought he had to believe but rather he lived his life through building relationships. From being Chair of the student dental council to being Chair of Alyth Synagogue, Peter was there for people and he spoke up for them giving people time so he understood what was needed. Those relationships were so appreciated by people that even the spy at dental school, there to find the political agitators, warned him who he was so he didn’t have to get Peter into trouble. The only time he struggled was with those people he thought were creating ludicrous rules he couldn’t get on board with. He spent his early life fighting the South African authorities, school system and then the overly strict university rules, but I was assured the bath plug story was not suitable for a funeral. Then later on, the Suburb Trust became his nemesis. You need a hedge to be green when nature isn’t playing ball? Green spray paint will have to do. You don’t like the way he painted the top of the house, you don’t think that’s what Lutyens intended? He will sacrifice his copy of the Suburb News.
there were just so so many projects
He saw what it felt like not to fit in and he worked so hard to demonstrate courageous leadership so that no one else felt those feelings of exclusion. It was not easy to be the Jewish, not sporty, non-conformer in an all-boys school in Pretoria in the early 1960s. So Peter built places where he made everyone feel at the centre of his world. Whether it was making Candy and Mark feel like they’d found their new home when he taught them how to swim. Whether it was being the dad who accompanied Saul to a course on how to build computers subjecting Harriet to years of computer bits forever being on the dining room table. Whether it was being the dad who had real time to devote to his family so that when Resa was asked at nursery what her dad did professionally she was able to answer, “He’s a dad”. Whether it was letting Dory and Oli wash his hair, shave him and do the full pampering experience or the utter joy he took from Zena. The pride of Dory’s school exams and the pride of Oli’s debut Rhythm and Jews drumming gig. Even down to his gorgeously gracious words to me when he joined FRS. He made us all feel special and supported by his expressions of pride, encouragement and care.
For me, Peter will forever be sitting at that dining table, filled with family. Whether it’s Friday night dinner, a birthday tea or a yom tov lunch, he will always be sat there with you all because he created the moments that will live on long, long after him. His smile and contentment only grew as the table grew. With Resa and Saul, then with Rob and Pippa, with three grandchildren, with the Shers and machatonim, with friendships so long they may as well be family, may your table only continue to grow. Harriet, you and Pete were the most amazing partnership as you enabled each other to be yourselves and supported each other with every project big or small and for Peter there were just so so many projects.
How can someone make time for everyone whilst writing books, crazy home improvement projects, drying biltong, studying, teaching, working, perhaps there were more hours in his day than anyone else’s. He fit in one hundred and twenty years into his seventy six.
the spirit that lives on
Peter you leave us with the final paradox. What happens now? Where are you? You the pragmatist wasn’t worried. You said when you were gone you’d be gone. Arrangements for today didn’t worry you only that Harriet, Resa and Saul would be alright. And yet walking in nature you saw a world of interconnectedness that you knew you would always be part of. You had words for the ruach, the spirit that lives on. So, with every gentle breeze we will feel your presence still with us, that companionship and support never leaving and with every gust of wind we will know that you are reminding us of a world that is fair and just, a world that we should be striving for and will be spurred on to continue your work.
Thank you all for coming.
My Dad lost his father when he was young, an experience which made him grow up very quickly. He gained a fierce determination to be self sufficient and a drive to succeed. During his formative years he was always looking for opportunities, whether it was collecting bottles from around the neighbourhood to claim their deposits, selling safari suits, photography or even trying to extract the silver from his leftover photographic chemicals. He wanted to know he could be independent, provide for himself.
always looking for something new to put his hand to
He sometimes described this as a feeling of ‘ champing at the bit’, never satisfied with just doing what he was doing, he was always looking for something new to put his hand to. He had a storied career as a preeminent dentist then periodontist, who ran his own practice, ran the hygiene school at UCL, gave lectures around the world and published more papers than any of his colleagues who were in full time research.
If you read his CV, you might have assumed that he was a dyed in the wool man of science but to those of us who knew him, he was a deeply spiritual person. He was a leader in the Jewish community but also saw the wisdom in many other traditions. Open minded, trained in acupuncture, read in kabbalah and willing to engage with anyone who was interested in deep questions of existence. He never lost his curiosity and would never take anything at face value, always looking for the hidden truth well as the apparent ones. A few years ago he wrote a book trying to reconcile these two sides of his beliefs, which I would like to read a brief passage from:
“As we examine the tiniest building blocks of matter, we come to rely increasingly on statistical probability in the absence of observable physical certainty. Because these particles cannot be observed directly, and only estimated, there is a significant element of error and unreliability in the experiments. In other words, the closer we get to the essence of the universe, the fuzzier the picture and the less accurate our measurements become and the less reliable our mathematical predictions become. The laws of physics break down and we reach an impenetrable fuzz through which we simply cannot pass or see what is on the other side.
Therefore it is increasingly recognised that on the lowest levels of life (ie basic survival), experience is purely physical. While metaphysical existence may be defined in such terms as spirit or soul.The soul has no physical form but contains information only, possibly about past lives, present lives, the greater reality or other aspects of existence we do not know.”
something beyond our physical existence
He believed there was something beyond our physical existence and while we may never know what is the nature of the soul, there is one type of immortality we can directly observe. He lives on in all of the memories of him that we cherish.His influence and his spirit will last well into the future. He was loved by all of his family and gave so much for us all to have what he never had, a father who was there to play with us, support us and to comfort us well into our adulthood; and a grandfather who loved his grandchildren so much and showed them every time he saw them. Even though Zena is too young to remember those moments, we have so many happy memories of them together, even in his last days.
For much of his life he considered himself something of an outsider and he would be truly heartened to see the number of people who were touched by meeting him. All of the people he met through his dentistry, through his Jewish community work and through his outreach to forgotten corners of the family tree.
We will all remember his sage advice, his jokes and positive attitude. The attitude he demonstrated spectacularly over the past few years. When he had his stroke five years ago and lost part of his vision, he was determined to continue his life as before. Any setback he encountered was just a problem to be solved. He never complained and just sought ways to make his situation better. He devised his own visual rehabilitation programme and continued to tinker and garden just like he had done before. A few months later, he built and decorated the chuppah for our wedding, with many people commenting on what a beautiful job he had done.
Even when a year ago he was given a diagnosis so similar to the one which had taken his father, an emotional blow that could have floored so many others, he maintained that same positive attitude. He wanted to fight it until the end and spend as much time with his loved ones. Still looking for ways to improve his situation right until the end. He was truly inspiring in his outlook.
So as he always liked to say on these occasions, “Oif Simchas”, I wish we could only meet for celebrations.
If I was to do this pure Peter Galgut style I’d take my jacket off, discard the notes, maybe drink a whisky, but I don’t quite trust myself at the moment so I’ll stick to my written words, mostly.
So. Here we are. But why? Believe me, I can’t express how loved, supported and comforted we’ve all felt over the past few days, weeks, years by you, the people we love and everyone who has helped, hugged, fed and cared for us. But in this moment, when we’re so bereft, I also believe we’re here to celebrate a life lived exceptionally well and fully. Because there really was so much to celebrate, and learn from, and if we can’t have him physically in our lives anymore, maybe we can take just a little bit of Peter into ourselves.
the most positive human being
First of all, he was the most positive human being I have ever had the pleasure to know. No challenge was insurmountable, no issue unfixable. In the past ten years he had prostate cancer, a hemorrhagic stroke and a brain tumour. At no point did he complain of the increasingly difficult and bizarre symptoms these diseases and their treatments threw at him. Not once. In fact Saul and I often found it hard to gauge whether he was even having symptoms. If you asked him how he was, he would do his mittel European shrug and say, “Thanks God, I’m ok.” If he was feeling particularly dafka, he would stand on one leg just to show you how little his increasingly serious balance issues were bothering him. He really struggled with reading and visual processing following his stroke, which no one knew how to resolve, so he designed himself a bespoke eye retraining programme which for the most part, worked at the time. And throughout his trials Mum was at his side, supporting him, rolling her eyes at his refusal to rest up or behave himself but looking after him, protecting him and making his life easier in a million ways. I’m conscious that life will continue to throw curve balls and hard times for all of us, although if the pace could slow down somewhat, that would be great, but if I can meet the challenges that will come with half the stoicism, good humour and positivity that they both showed then I’ll count myself extremely lucky.
Alongside the positivity though, was a solid, no nonsense physicality and an incredibly calm approach in an emergency. When Saul split his jaw growing up, Dad reset it on the spot. He fixed his own dislocated shoulder in the middle of Brazil. And in fact when the hedge trimmer slipped and Dad cut his own fingers seriously enough to worry about their ongoing function, he sewed them back together himself. And once he’d done that to his own satisfaction, and only then, he had the good grace to pass out from the pain. He was, as they say, hard as nails.
always made you feel you were the most interesting person in the room
In contrast though, he was an incredibly warm person. Everyone talks about his bear hugs and how they’ll be missed, and of course they will be, terribly. But more deeply, he cared about people and was genuinely interested in them. He drove a conversation with the smallest child to the most august professor with the same courtesy and ability to draw them out. He was always more interested in how you were than talking about how he was, and always made you feel you were the most interesting person in the room. He was such a people pleaser that when he ran his practice in Seven Sisters he marked every patient’s notes with their Tottenham or Arsenal affiliation. He didn’t care in the slightest about football but he knew it mattered deeply to them, so it mattered deeply to him. For years after he treated or taught them, patients and students would get in touch, check in, let him know how life was going. Each felt a really strong connection even from their brief interactions. It was a gift.
He was a doting father, designing all sorts of adventures for us growing up, exploding chemicals that weren’t on the syllabus, and frankly, for good reason, building us circuit toys and dens and hideaways and always game for some ridiculous adventure. I asked Dory and Oli for their memories of Grandpa and it all sounds familiar, the hideaway he built them in the garden during Covid from used pallets, the rough and tumble games on a Friday night, the pillow forts in the lounge. He loved the physicality of early childhood, the cuddles and tickles and raspberries. He even let the kids treat him like a great big human doll, washing and cutting his hair, shaving his beard (electric razor, don’t worry) and giving him beauty salon treatments like foot spas, massages and facials. He was constantly game and my kids, and in fact all young people he met, loved him for it.
endless stories that could have come straight from the Just William books.
They also loved his many naughty boy childhood stories, told in Dad’s inimitable style. From the girl who sat in front of him whose pigtails he used as paintbrushes to climbing drainpipes and putting his head through a hornet’s nest, he had endless stories that could have come straight from the Just William books. Although maybe not the ones concerning his Rabbi, who I’m afraid to say was often the butt of an assortment of childhood high jinks, from hiding in the Rabbi’s cupboard and making ‘spooky noises’ during services to stealing and rearranging his sermon, to soaping the handle of his office so he couldn’t get in. Maybe this was the beginnings of Dad’s disregard for the authority of people he didn’t respect that carried on throughout his life. In any case, the kids love all these stories endlessly.
That friction with authority lead to strong beliefs, which he always saw through. Mum and Dad met on an anti-apartheid rally, when the police tear gassed all the protestors and he looked after her. That drive to right wrongs persisted throughout life, whether working with development charities to promote access to dentistry, setting up automatic spamming of anti-semitic websites to impede their function or challenging the status quo in academia when their statistical research and conclusions weren’t robust enough. He helped friends and colleagues through illness, ran numerous Jewish organisations and was always looking for ways he could help in difficult times.
we’ll hug a little bit more and worry a little bit less
So yes, Pete lives on in our hearts and our memories, and in the wonderful legacy of the friends, family and community he created. But maybe also we can keep his spirit alive by being a little bit ‘Pete’ from time to time; a bit more eccentric, a bit more forthright, a bit more outward looking. Maybe we’ll take up a new hobby, although it doesn’t need to be Yiddish, life drawing, Tai Chi or any of the other millions of things Dad seemed to find time for. Maybe we’ll raise a glass of whisky and call a friend we haven’t spoken to for ages. Maybe we’ll hug a little bit more and worry a little bit less. Whatever we do, however we do it, we’ll be celebrating a truly wonderful human being who will be much missed.
We have over the past few days, heard about many of the wonderful attributes which are my brother Peter. We heard from his son, Saul, his perspective about their journey together. We have heard his daughter Resa, her journey with her father, and also the journey of a longstanding family friend, Rabbi Miriam. All have spoken of Peter’s kindness, his gentle approach, his sensitivity, his community spirit, his dedication to his children and grandchildren, to his family, his integrity and professional commitment.
I can’t add to what has already been said, other than to say that, in all the world, I could not have chosen a better brother.
We were brought up on, what the family called “the farm”, probably better described as a small holding, lots and lots of space for two young boys to get rid of excess energy. Lawns to play on, produce to be enjoyed fresh from the tree, eggs fresh from the hens, a wonderful and idyllic life, until our father died. Peter was twelve and I was nine.
The next few years were extremely difficult for our mother and both of us, each of us trying to work out the new family order. Our mother was obviously the head of the family, and we always knew when we were to receive a reprimand. We would be summoned with a lilting “Peter” or “Keith” and on entering our mother’s room we were directed to a low chair to sit down. Our mother would immediately position herself close to our knees so that we couldn’t stand up. Bless her, at the age of nine I was taller than her. Being scolded by someone who must look up at you while reprimanding you, just doesn’t work.
As I remember it, it was at this time that Peter and I really became very close. We were always close though my father’s demise was the catalyst which forged a very special bond.
We were both forced to grow up very quickly, but an additional responsibility was imposed on Peter. In the normal order of things, younger siblings, particularly of the same gender, follow and copy their older brothers or sisters. When a father is taken at an early age, one has to find one’s way, discover new skills and, in the main, it fell on Peter to discover pathways to many life skills which might otherwise have been taught to us by our father. Things that we take for granted. How does one apply a safety razor to the face, safely. The word safety in this context was perhaps ambitious.
Peter, always up for a challenge, embraced these tasks with enthusiasm, most solutions were successful, others, not necessarily so. Peter had a ‘can do, never give up’ outlook on life which has served him, and those around him, very well.
Peter was my mentor. A person of infinite patience when teaching, when showing and when helping with real issues, he had an instinct for what was important and what was trivial, and you certainly knew when he thought your issue was trivial. We were able to stand together in the face of adversity, and luckily for me, he was always there when he was needed.
Peter’s sincerity, his focus on fairness, integrity and an unrestrained wish to help those in need
We grew up and as the years passed, our bond became stronger. Peter taught me many things, not least of which, the value of saying what needs to be said. He was so much better than me at doing it diplomatically. I suppose there is only so much that you can drum into your kid brother’s head!
With saying what needs to be said, came a truth, Peter’s sincerity, his focus on fairness, integrity and an unrestrained wish to help those in need. I was a major recipient of these principles and will be forever grateful for his unstinting dedication to taking me on this journey.
As I have already said, Peter’s qualities have been described in detail, far more eloquently than I could. What is without question is that, not only to me, I am obviously biased, but to so many other people, Peter was a very special man who touched many lives in so many positive ways.
This is probably not the best forum to say what I am going to say. However.
Harriet, Resa and Saul, the past year, and especially the last few weeks, have been hell for you. You must be exhausted. Now, it is time for you to look after yourselves, to take stock and ensure that you do not neglect you own health.
Harriet you have been there for Peter during this extremely trying time, and despite many challenges, you have gone out of your way to ensure that Peter’s final journey was as comfortable as possible. Thank you, thank you so much for looking after my brother.
Resa and Saul, you too have harnessed every sinew available to be there for Peter; and you have also been so supportive of me. You have both been quite marvellous. Thank you for being there for my brother, thank you both so much.
A man of great enthusiasm, innovative, enquiring and determined to achieve his goals in life.
My mentor, my friend, my right arm, and my guide.
May he be in a good place, at peace and free of suffering.
I will miss him dearly.