Occupational-health trailblazer hailed as one of 60 ‘New Elizabethans’
A pioneering figure in occupational-health research, whose ground-breaking work throughout the second half of the 20th century made a difference to countless lives, has been named as one of 60 ‘New Elizabethans’ who have made the greatest mark during Her Majesty the Queen’s reign.
Sir Richard Doll was included in the list compiled by leading historians and BBC Radio 4 to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Epidemiologist Sir Richard published the first scientific research paper proving the link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. The 1954 paper, co-authored with Austin Bradford Hill, instigated what turned out to be one of the greatest social changes of the century.
In the early 1950s, 80 per cent of adults in the UK smoked – a figure, which, today, is estimated to have dropped to 27 per cent. This reduction can largely be attributed to Sir Richard’s work and the resulting bans on tobacco advertising on television, printing of health warnings on cigarette packs, and outlawing of smoking in public places.
Born in Middlesex in 1912, Richard Doll always had a sharp social conscience; he was a member of the Communist Party in Britain between the 1930s and the 1950s and, after the Second World War, he campaigned for the establishment of the National Health Service. He remained committed to action on public health throughout his career until his death in 2005.
Although best known for his work on the health effects of tobacco use he is also celebrated in the field of occupational health for his work on asbestos, asthma and ionising radiation. His first publication on the link between the ‘fatal fibre’ and lung cancer was in the British Journal of Industrial Medicine in 1955, in which he concluded that the disease “was a specific industrial hazard of certain asbestos workers and that the average risk among men employed for 20 or more years has been of the order of 10 times that experienced by the general population”.
In the 1980s, Sir Richard, together with Professors Richard and Julian Peto, published several important papers on the occupational health effects of asbestos – research that is still used by the HSE today to inform its strategy on addressing occupational cancer (the Executive is currently sponsoring a project to update Doll and Peto’s estimates for the world of work in the 21st century).
Sir Richard’s work was not without controversy, however. He angered the anti-smoking lobby in 2001, when he dismissed the impact of passive smoking, saying “the effect of other people smoking in my presence is so small it doesn’t worry me”.
Soon after his death it was revealed that he had, since the 1970s, been paid on a regular basis by such industrial giants as Monsanto and General Motors for consultancy services and research. He was often called on as an expert witness in official enquiries and court cases seeking to establish links between cancer cases and chemicals, or radiation in which he denied there was any significant causative factor, thus saving industry – including the asbestos industry – and governments millions in compensation payments.
The science community rallied to his defence, saying Sir Richard was always open about his links to industry and held the view that it was better to work with the likes of manufacturers in order to access data about their products. Many of the fees he received for this work went to Green College in Oxford, which he ran as a post-graduate medical institution.
IOSH, which nominated Sir Richard to be included as a ‘New Elizabethan’, said it was delighted at his inclusion. Added chief executive Rob Strange OBE: “Evidence-based occupational health has made an immense contribution to modern life over the last 60 years and Sir Richard was undoubtedly one of its pioneers.
“His choice by historians as one of 60 ‘New Elizabethans’ is heartening because it is recognition of the role evidence-based occupational health has played in making this country a healthier, more civilised place in which to live.”
You can ‘listen again’ to the short programmes on each of the 60 pioneers, broadcast by BBC Radio 4 throughout June – go to www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/features/the-new-elizabethans/
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