A tribute to Sir David Weatherall

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Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Our President, Professor Sarah Rowland-Jones, pays tribute to Sir David Weatherall. 

With the death of Sir David Weatherall on 8 December 2018, we lost one of the great figures of academic medicine, often described as the father of molecular genetics.

It is perhaps less well-known that he also made substantial contributions to tropical medicine and global health, for which he was recognised by the award of the RSTMH Manson Medal in 1998.

University of Exeter from United Kingdom [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A proud Northerner, Sir David trained in medicine in Liverpool, where he later returned as Professor of Haematology.

As a junior doctor, he spent two formative years of national service as a paediatrician in Singapore. Here he encountered a young child with severe anaemia, which he demonstrated was due to a genetic disorder of haemoglobin called thalassaemia, arising from faulty genes carried by both parents: this was the first single gene defect to be linked with a major disease.

This led him to a lifelong interest in inherited blood disorders, many of which have been perpetuated in populations exposed to malaria because a single mutated gene can confer relative resistance to malaria.

His work enabled the development of reliable molecular diagnostic tests for thalassaemia, which has led to dramatic reductions of the disease worldwide, as well as improved treatments for those still affected.

He became Nuffield Professor of Medicine in Oxford in 1974, where he founded the Institute of Molecular Medicine, now renamed the Weatherall institute of Molecular Medicine in his honour.

In Oxford he supported the development of a network of researchers based in the tropics, which have evolved into the Wellcome Trust-supported overseas programmes led from Thailand, Viet Nam and Kenya. The first of these programmes, now the Mahidol Oxford Research Unit (MORU) in Bangkok will celebrate its fortieth anniversary this year.

Sir David was not only an outstanding and visionary research leader, he was also an exceptional clinician.

Those of us who had the privilege to work for him (I was his House physician in the 1980s) will recall how after a lengthy discussion by the juniors of a complex case had petered out without reaching a conclusion, he would modestly propose the correct diagnosis, often saying “I expect you have all thought of this, but do you think it might be….?”.

In this way I remember him making the diagnosis of the first patient with HIV infection in Oxford in 1982, in a Zambian woman, well before the infection was recognised to be present in sub-Saharan Africa.

He was an immensely supportive mentor to many, many clinicians and scientists, myself included. To a large extent his legacy may be seen in medical schools and research institutes around the world.

I certainly owe a huge debt of gratitude to him for his support of my career in academic and tropical medicine. He will be very much missed.

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