Sir Richard Doll was the world’s foremost epidemiologist, perhaps best known to the general public for establishing the link between smoking and cancer. The son of Henry William Doll, a London general practitioner, and Amy Kathleen née Shaboe, he was educated at Westminster School, where he showed unusual mathematical ability, but decided to study medicine. He qualified at St Thomas’ Hospital in 1937. As a student he became aware of the extent of poverty in Britain and was among those who provided medical assistance along stretches of the Jarrow March. Having visited Germany and seen something for himself of fascism, he joined the Army reserve before 1939, later served in France as a battalion medical officer and then on a hospital ship near Cairo. The diary of his experiences on the retreat to Dunkirk came to light many years later and was published in the BMJ in 1990.
After the war, while working with Francis Avery Jones at the Central Middlesex Hospital on peptic ulcer aetiology, he attracted the attention of Austin Bradford Hill [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.235] of the Medical Research Council, whom he then joined to investigate the causes of lung cancer. Their now famous case-control study was followed by a prospective study of 40,000 doctors that was unique in its regular updating of the smoking details and in the completeness of follow-up; Doll’s recent 50-year report showed that half of persistent smokers die as a result of the habit. His work played a major part in convincing the scientific community and public health bodies around the world that smoking caused lung cancer and other diseases, and in turn helped to change smoking habits.
In 1949 Richard married Joan Faulkner, also a doctor and, until her death in 2001, she was his closest friend and an active supporter of his work. They had a son and a daughter. Together they helped to found the Agnostics’ (later the Independent) Adoption Society.
At the MRC statistical research unit in London, where he succeeded Bradford Hill as director, Richard Doll also carried out important work on the health effects of ionising radiation, asbestos and oral contraceptives, besides promoting clinical trials and cancer registries. Throughout this period he continued clinical work at the Central Middlesex, conducting therapeutic trials in peptic ulceration that demonstrated the efficacy of both liquorice extract and carbenoxelone.
In 1969 he was appointed Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford University, at which point he gave up clinical work to concentrate on university affairs, particularly the expansion of the medical school, and his own research department. In the investigation of carcinogenic effects of occupation, diet, lifestyle and radiation, he attracted many younger colleagues, some of whom have themselves become influential in epidemiology in Britain and abroad. He also played a key role in establishing Green College, overcoming the many administrative obstacles in the university to this largely medical foundation.
His social conscience and left-wing views led to his joining the Communist Party in 1937, though he left after the invasion of Hungary in 1956. When his friend Geoffrey Dean [Munk's Roll, Vol.XII, web], another Fellow, was arrested in South Africa in 1965 following a letter to the South African Medical Journal about injury to prisoners in jail, Doll was prompt in responding. He organised an influential group, including the President of the College, Lord Platt, to speak on Dean’s behalf at his trial, which may well have been decisive in the charge being dropped by the authorities.
Richard Doll believed strongly in communicating scientific findings to the public, and in combating misconceptions, giving journalists clear and succinct statements. Excellent at pitching his words appropriately for his audience and notably effective in the courtroom, he was widely consulted, though when fees were involved, as with industry, these usually went to a charity.
Although interested in literature and the theatre, work was unquestionably central in his life; there was hardly any aspect of cancer causation to which he had not contributed. His capacity for work was prodigious, even after long-haul flights, and working into the small hours was usual well into his eighties. He was masterly at quickly and succinctly summarising large amounts of data and, even when busy with other matters, could still give some new question his undivided attention. Scientific data were examined with extraordinary detachment, even in an atmosphere charged with preformed views. An excellent chairman, calm, polite and business-like, he could be formidable when occasion demanded.
On reaching official retirement age, his close friend and colleague Sir Richard Peto enabled him to continue working and this he did productively until weeks before his death at the age of 92. Richard Doll had lived to see universal acceptance of his work showing that smoking is the main cause of the world’s commonest fatal cancer, as well as the relative success of strategies to reduce the prevalence of the habit.
[The Lancet 2005,366,448; Brit.med.J., 2005,331,295; Cancer Research UK Scientific Yearbook 2004/2005, p.6; British Journal of Cancer (2005)93,963-966; Nature 438,41(3 November 2005); Oxford Today, Michaelmas Issue, 2005, p.13; The Daily Telegraph 25 July 2005; The Times 25 July 2005; The Guardian 25 July 2005; The Independent 26 July 2005]