LONDON, England / The Guardian / Science / Medical Research / April 14, 2010
By Walter Holland
John Pemberton, who has died aged 97, was an epidemiologist prominent in social and preventive medicine, and in the international dissemination of research in the field. His interest manifested itself early. In 1934, while still a medical student, he published a paper entitled Malnutrition in England. During the Jarrow marches of 1936, John met some of the marchers, helping to feed them and tending their feet. This experience, along with his contacts with Jerry Morris, Somerville Hastings (president of the Socialist Medical Association), Philip D'Arcy Hart and FAE Crew (later professor of social medicine at Edinburgh University) reinforced his belief in the importance of social and environmental factors in the aetiology of many diseases.
As a Rockefeller travelling fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health in 1954, he met the American Harold Willard.
Both men felt they were handicapped in the development of their interests in social and preventive medicine because of their ignorance of research and teaching in other countries. So they established a corresponding club to facilitate communication between physicians worldwide.
This club, the International Corresponding Club, grew into the International Epidemiology Association (IEA), with a renowned journal, the International Journal of Epidemiology. John had a talent for setting up organisations. At the first meeting of the charitable CIBA foundation in London in 1956, he persuaded the British and Irish participants to accept the need for an independent scientific society, and thus created the Society for Social Medicine.
A multidisciplinary academic society devoted to the study of health in its widest sense, it addressed the impact of factors such as income, environment and education on health. In 1967, while professor of social and preventive medicine at the University of Belfast, he persuaded the Geigy pharmaceutical company to sponsor the all-Ireland social medicine meeting.
This meeting, which looks at health issues across national borders, continues to take place every two years. John was born in Romford, Essex. He attended Christ's Hospital school, Horsham, West Sussex, then studied medicine at University College Hospital (UCH), qualifying in 1936. In the same year he married Gwen Gray, with whom he would have three sons.
After a house appointment at UCH, he was recruited by Sir John (later Lord) Boyd Orr to be in charge of a mobile nutritional research team which undertook a major survey in England and Scotland. This showed the effects of poverty on nutrition and was acknowledged by Lord Woolton, minister of food during the second world war, to be the foundation for the successful nutritional policy during the war. It has also been considered by some to be the major reason for the improvement in the health of the UK population after 1939.
One of the "control" schools in this study was Gordonstoun, where John examined the chest of the current Duke of Edinburgh, the "nearest I ever got to a 'royal'". Following this, he had a series of academic appointments at Sheffield University, and helped to start the student health service there. During this period he worked with Hans Krebs on a series of nutrition-deprivation experiments for the development of a policy for shipwrecked sailors. In 1946 he was appointed senior lecturer in Sheffield and started to teach social medicine. His research encompassed the study of the health of the elderly at home, illness in general practice (which was probably the first description of the work of GPs) and socio-medical studies of hospital patients and student health. His fascination with the work of GPs was reinforced by acting as a locum to Will Pickles in Wensleydale, North Yorkshire, in his holidays. Pickles was the most eminent GP-epidemiologist and the founder-president of the Royal College of General Practitioners. This led to John writing a biography of his friend, Will Pickles of Wensleydale: The Life of a Country Doctor (1970).
During the early 1950s, John investigated the effects of air pollution on pulmonary illness. This led to the Medical Research Council awarding him funds for epidemiological research into respiratory disease and resulted in several publications.
In 1958 he was appointed to the chair of social and preventive medicine in Queen's University, Belfast, where he stayed until retirement in 1976. While in Belfast, he was the first to show that flax (an important local product) caused the lung disease byssinosis, just as – as was already known – cotton did.
As a result, workers who had been exposed to flax fibre became entitled to claim compensation. John's research interests expanded to include coronary artery disease, and he was instrumental in the establishment in Belfast of a World Health Organisation (WHO) centre for the multinational monitoring of cardiovascular disease.
John was greatly interested in making epidemiology an important tool in global health and, through the IEA, promoted the strengthening of this capacity in developing countries. He served as a consultant to the WHO in India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Soviet Union, as well as on many important national committees. After retirement, he returned to Sheffield as academic co-ordinator of the Northern Consortium for Training in Community Medicine. Over the last 25 years he published research papers on osteoporosis, hip fractures and hypotension. His hobbies of painting, literature and walking epitomised his approach to life. He was kind and gentle, stimulating yet modest. Gwen died in 1989. John is survived by his partner, Maureen Maybin, and his sons. [rc]
• John Pemberton, epidemiologist, born 18 November 1912; died 7 February 2010
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