Roy Malcolm Acheson was an eminent epidemiologist who during the course of his career established three university departments, at Yale, the University of London and at Cambridge. He was born in Belfast, the son of Malcolm King Acheson, a medical practitioner, and Dorothy Josephine née Rennoldson, the daughter of the director of a shipbuilding yard. His younger brother, Ernest Donald Acheson [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web] later became the chief medical officer of England and Wales. Roy Acheson attended Merchiston Castle School in Edinburgh and then, in 1938, went to Trinity College, Dublin, to study medicine. However, part way through his studies, he decided to volunteer for action in the Second World War. In 1940, he joined the North Irish Horse (part of the Royal Armoured Corps) and served in North Africa and Italy. He left the Army as a lieutenant and returned to Trinity, gained his BA, and then went to Brasenose College, Oxford, qualifying in 1951.
In 1953, while working under Alice Stewart [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XI, p.550] at the Radcliffe Infirmary, he devised the ‘Oxford Method’ for assessing bone growth. In 1955 he began a long association with the Rockefeller Foundation when he received a travelling fellowship to visit the Harvard School of Public Health and Western Reserve University.
On his return, he became a lecturer in social medicine at Trinity College, Dublin. From 1959, he was a senior lecturer and then reader in social and preventive medicine, a position held jointly between Guy’s Hospital and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
In 1962, he joined the faculty of Yale University, where he established a division of chronic disease epidemiology. He set up an impressive programme of teaching and training, with a research interest in musculoskeletal diseases, particularly arthritis.
Ten years later he returned to London, where he set up the Centre for Extension Training in Community Medicine. In 1974, he became professor of health service studies at the University of London, and then, in 1977, foundation professor of community medicine at the new clinical school at Cambridge. He also became a fellow of Churchill College.
In 1979, he helped launch the Rockefeller Foundation’s International Clinical Epidemiology Network (INCLEN) programme by organising its inaugural week-long seminar in Cambridge. This introduced young clinicians from medical schools in the developing world to the possibilities of using epidemiology to evaluate their health services and allocate scarce resources.
Acheson was an early member of the International Epidemiological Association (IEA), also initiated by the Rockefeller Foundation. He was the organisation’s secretary, planned many of its meetings and seminars, and edited many of the IEA’s publications. He was also an adviser to many other international organisations and agencies, including the Pan American Health Organization, WHO and the US National Institutes of Health.
He wrote on varied range of medical topics, including growth, gout, osteoarthritis, the prevention of hypertension, medical education and the organisation of medical care.
Acheson married Fiona Marigo O’Brien, a consultant anaesthetist, in 1950. They divorced in 1990. They had three children – two sons, Malcolm and Vincent, and a daughter, Marigo. At the time of his election to the fellowship of the College in 1973 he listed rugby, squash, tennis and golf among his interests. He died from prostate cancer.
[The Times 15 April 2003; The Lancet 2003 July 19; 362(9379):253; Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edn, Oxford University Press, Jan 2007, www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/89869 – accessed 7 June 2010]