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News > In Memoriam > Deborah Turbitt (1963-2022)

Deborah Turbitt (1963-2022)

Deborah Turbitt: eminent public health specialist and spokesperson

Hand knitted cardigans hung from the altar rails at he packed east London funeral of Deborah Turbitt. Her family invited mourners to take one in memory of the public health specialist, who died aged 59.

Knitting was relaxation during a public health career that spanned the 2005 London bombings in which 52 people died; the poisoning
of Alexander Litvinenko, the former KGB officer, with polonium the following year; and the attacks on London Bridge and Fishmongers’
Hall. After the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014, Turbitt oversaw a surveillance and testing system, and only three cases had to be
treated in England.

In 2012 she led the public health preparations for the London Olympics, starting with overseeing the decontamination of the designated site and going on to monitor the wellbeing of the 14 700 competitors and 11 million spectators. No major public health incidents occurred.
In 2017 she found herself the butt of public anger when she decided to attend meetings of local people after the Grenfell fire in which 71 people died. She felt an obligation to be there, answering concerns about air quality and asbestos.

“Deborah was a socialist—pink to the core,” said Mat Wilson, her husband of 34 years. “It was the old fashioned socialism of the north, with its memory of the Jarrow march and straightforward tenets that people should be able to earn enough to live decently and that the poor and defenceless should be supported.” Coming back to her home in Hackney during the covid pandemic it was not unusual for her to be clapped down their street, he added.

Early life and career
Born in Hexham, Northumberland, to Jack, a heating engineer, and Margaret, a secretary, Turbitt attended Dame Allan’s School, Newcastle. She qualified after an elective in a leprosarium in Bengal. After hospital jobs, and having spent four months as a patient in
Barts hospital after a subarachnoid haemorrhage, she decided to specialise in public health and developed an interest in communicable diseases. She worked as a consultant in communicable disease control for the East London and City health authority and went on to become a deputy director of Public Health England for the London region.

Supportive colleague
Former colleagues remember her particularly for the support and encouragement she gave all team members.

Joanne Bosanquet, now chief executive of the Foundation of Nursing Studies, worked with Turbitt on the 2012 Olympics and found her
mentorship invaluable. “She really believed in nurse consultants, and it’s thanks to her I’m a chief executive now,” she said.

“Deborah was always enormously supportive in a modest, tactful way,” said Yvonne Young, acting deputy director Health Protection
London, UK Health Security Agency, who knew her for 20 years. “She was extremely knowledgeable, widely respected, and never
flamboyant. She was someone you would listen to.” She was also a ready spokesperson for public health, enlightening the media on topics from norovirus and baby food poisoning to false widow spiders and oak processionary moth caterpillars.

Yvonne Doyle, NHS England medical director for public health, said, “Deborah not only had an amazing casebook, enabling her to solve most problems, but also great reserves of tact. She was sensitive to the restaurant owner forced to close because of an outbreak [of food poisoning], as well as acknowledging the importance of protecting the public.”

Diagnosed with oesophageal cancer in 2021, Turbitt leaves her husband, Mat, and four children.

The obituary was originally published by The BMJ (

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