Doctor who told ‘snowflake surgeons’ to ‘toughen up’ defends comments

‘I’m not condoning misogyny, but it’s there. Deal with it’: Retired anaesthetist who told ‘snowflake doctors’ to ‘toughen up’ after female NHS surgeons revealed they have been sexually harassed by colleagues defends himself amid fury

  • Dr Peter Hilton defends telling female surgeons to ‘toughen up’ amid harassment
  • Shock survey found a third of women NHS medics have been sexually assaulted

A retired anaesthetist who sparked fury after telling female NHS surgeons to ‘toughen up’ amid claims of widespread sexual harassment in the medical profession has defended his remarks, claiming medicine is ‘not alone’ in having a work-hard culture.

Dr Peter Hilton, 71, said in a letter to The Times that a ‘snowflake generation’ of young doctors ‘clearly did not do their homework’ about working in hospitals, after a survey revealed female surgeons have been the target of sexual harassment and assault – including while carrying out operations.

The comments sparked outrage among female surgeons but in a subsequent interview with The Times Dr Hilton has stood by his letter, saying that ‘banter’ and ‘bullying’ occurred in many walks of life – and that medics should ‘deal with it’.

However, he maintained that he was ‘not condoning sexual harassment’, adding that that any allegations of criminality should be investigated.

Women NHS surgeons revealed on Tuesday that they have suffered a litany of sexual assaults in the workplace; sickening accounts detailed a man wiping his sweaty brow on a surgeon’s breasts and another who rubbed his erect penis against a female colleague.

Roshana Mehdian-Staffell, a trainee trauma and orthopaedic surgeon, spoke of a 'boys' club mentality' and said one colleague made a comment about her 'sexy' ankles in short trousers. She called out the comments adding 'he (and others like him) were the reason it went unchallenged for so long'

Liz O'Riordan, who was a consultant oncoplastic breast surgeon before retiring four years ago, said she regularly experienced sexual harassment during her career of more than 20 years

Philippa Jackson said she was discussing a patient with a male colleague when he tried to give her a hug, rubbed himself against her and said: 'You probably felt my erection then'

Dr Mehdian-Staffell, a trainee trauma and orthopaedic surgeon, spoke out yesterday about the 'boys' club mentality' within the profession before detailing her experiences.

Responding to the letter this morning, the trainee surgeon said 'my mind is actually blown'

Dr Peter Hilton - who served as a consultant anaesthetist between 1986 to 2020 - warned incoming medical students 'four A*s at A-level are not the answer to all the problems they will face'

He said: ‘I’ve sent the letter to colleagues I worked with and they agree wholeheartedly.

‘Medicine is not alone in having a culture of bullying, sexual abuse verbal or otherwise, and banter that’s in bad taste.

‘You will meet people who are bullies, you will meet people who are misogynistic and do inappropriate things, but deal with it.’

After the letter was published on Wednesday surgeons, including palliative care doctor Rachel Clarke, hit back at the consultant, with Dr Clarke tweeting: ‘(He) unintentionally shows exactly why disgusting sexual abuse in the NHS still thrives and prospers.’

Female surgeons have taken to X – formerly Twitter – to share their own accounts of sexual harassment in light of Tuesday’s study, published by the British Journal of Surgery.

The survey of 1434 surgeons found that almost a third of female surgeons had been sexually assaulted, and two thirds had been sexually harassed. 

Roshana Mehdian-Staffell, a trainee trauma and orthopaedic surgeon, spoke out yesterday about the ‘boys’ club mentality’ within the profession before detailing her experiences. 

While she was training, a surgeon took her to a satellite clinic in his car and put his hand on her thigh.

In the sluice room – where waste is disposed of – she said: ‘I’ve had people stand behind me and grind themselves into me.’

Responding to Dr Hilton’s initial comments, she wrote on X: ‘My mind is actually blown It’s stressful so men can and will sexually harass you?’

‘He’s (and others like him) the reason it went unchallenged for so long’, she added.

Former NHS doctor turned comedian Adam Kay said on X: ‘The sheer number of messages I got from (old, male) doctors after I published “This is Going to Hurt” telling me to toughen up was astonishing. 

‘To think they’d also condone sexual assault is beyond appalling.’

Broadcaster Shelagh Forgarty shared the letter captioned 'Jesus wept'

Palliative care doctor Rachel Clarke said the letter was 'unbelievable' and 'shows exactly why disgusting sexual abuse in the NHS still thrives and prospers'

Former NHS doctor turned comedian Adam Kay said on X: 'To think they also condone sexual assault is beyond appalling'

Almost one in three female surgeons working in the NHS have been sexually assaulted in the last five years, according to a new survey (file image)

Broadcaster Shelagh Forgarty shared the letter, captioning the photo: ‘Jesus wept’. 

Meanwhile, economist Tony Yates wrote: ‘Ethics aside I have to say that as a patient I’d prefer that my surgeon not have to face ‘sexually inappropriate comments and actions’ while she is fixing my insides. Thanks.’

Philippa Jackson, a consultant plastic surgeon from Bristol, told The Times that she was discussing a patient with a male colleague when he tried to give her a hug.

Frequency of witnessing sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape among colleagues in past five years 
Harassment: composite 89.5 81
Jokes with sexual content 89 80.6
Displaying sexualized pictures 29.7 19.9
E-comms, unwanted/sexual 26.2 16.1
Physical advances, unwanted/sexual 38.4 14.9
Unwanted/sexual talk 61.8 29.5
Uninvited comments about body 67.3 38.3
Ask for a date despite previous refusal 18 6
Offered career opportunities for sex 8.5 2.7
Threatened for refusing sexual favour 5.5 1.2
Deliberately infringing body space 44.9 17.8
Assault: composite 35.9 17.1
Forced contact for career opportunities. 16.6 2.9
Touching, excluding genitals/breasts 33.2 16.6
Touching of genitals/breasts 6.5 1.6
Self-fondling by perpetrator 1.3 0.3
Rape: composite 1.9 0.6
Rape, workplace 0.6 0.3
Rape, other work contexts 2 0.6

She said: ‘He made some noises and rubbed himself against me. And then, as he backed away, he said “You probably felt my erection then,” and he also told me he could see down my top.’

Ms Jackson said she did not want to make a fuss because ‘we were about to go into theatre and I don’t think I had properly registered what had happened’.

Later that evening, she was working with the same colleague who offered to tie up her gown, which is a normal procedure among surgeons.

But she claimed he said “now you’ve given me permission to tie you up under any circumstances” – before kissing her on her neck from behind.

She also claimed to have ‘no faith in the system’ to protect her from attackers like the colleague who assaulted her. 

Liz O’Riordan, who was a consultant oncoplastic breast surgeon before retiring four years ago, said she regularly experienced sexual harassment during her career of more than 20 years.

She told The Times: ‘It was usually in theatre, when you’re operating next to your boss, your superiors, and your peers. You’re wearing thin cotton scrubs and you have full body contact.’

Ms O’Riordan, who has previously written about her experiences in The Mail on Sunday, added that she also had a ‘fear of speaking out when your job depends on the training and references from the person harassing you’.

One said: ‘You’ve got short trousers on – make sure you always wear them because your ankles are really sexy.’

Another surgeon claimed she was sexually assaulted by a consultant who wiped his sweaty brow on her breasts.

The woman, named only as Judith, was ‘humiliated’ by her colleague who ‘smirked’ after she suggested getting him a towel and told her: ‘No, this is much more fun.’

The report in the British Journal of Surgery concluded: ‘Sexual misconduct occurs frequently and appears to go unchecked in the surgical environment owing to a combination of a deeply hierarchical structure and a gender and power imbalance.

‘The result is an unsafe working environment and an unsafe space for patients.’

Dr Binta Sultan, who chairs NHS England’s national clinical network of sexual assault and abuse services, said the report presented ‘clear evidence’ that action was needed to make hospitals a safer environment.

She told the BBC: ‘We are already taking significant steps to do this, including through commitments to provide more support and clear reporting mechanisms to those who have suffered harassment or inappropriate behaviour.’

Tim Mitchell, president of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, said such behaviour had ‘no place… anywhere in the NHS’.

Describing it as ‘abhorrent’, he said: ‘We will not tolerate such behaviour in our ranks.’

The Department of Health and Social Care said: ‘The Health and Social Care Secretary is clear that sexual violence or misconduct of any kind is unacceptable and has no place in the NHS. 

‘He is working closely with NHS leaders to root out this unacceptable behaviour and ensure services are always safe for staff and patients.

‘In partnership with the Royal Colleges, staff, regulators and trade unions, the NHS recently launched the healthcare system’s first organisational sexual safety charter.

‘Signatories commit to taking and enforcing a zero-tolerance approach to any unwanted, inappropriate and/or harmful sexual behaviours within the workplace.’


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