Lives of the fellows

George Williamson Auchinvole Dick

b.14 August 1914 d.3 July 1997
MB ChB Edin( 1938) BSc(1939) MD(1949) MPH Johns Hopkins(1949) MRCP Edin(1952) DSc(1955) FRCP Edin(1955) MRCP(1959) FRCPath(1964) FRCP(1966)

George Dick was a leading research scientist with a world-wide reputation in the study of virus diseases. He was born in Glasgow where the ministry of his father, the Reverend David Dick, included the infamous Gorbals. He was educated in Glasgow and then Edinburgh and later graduated from the University of Edinburgh.

He served in the RAMC from 1940 to 1946, becoming a lieutenant colonel commanding a medical division and a specialist in pathology. At the end of the war he stayed on in East Africa, serving in the Colonial Medical Service until 1951. He was based in the Rockefeller Foundation Yellow Fever Laboratories at Entebbe where he studied the natural history of yellow fever and its virus. During the course of this work he discovered some previously unknown viruses.

With a Rockefeller fellowship he went on to New York to work in the Foundations laboratories there and then spent a year at Johns Hopkins, Baltimore. He then returned to Britain and from 1951 to 1954 was on the scientific staff of the Medical Research Council and was in a group studying mouse hepatitis virus (which sounds rather esoteric but was a model in which important basic facts were learned).

By this stage he had been well trained in the virology of the time. During his career his own work led to the publication of over two hundred papers on viruses ranging from poliomyelitis, yellow fever, arboviruses, hepatitis, vaccinia, the possible role of viruses in the causation of multiple sclerosis and various aspects of virus vaccination. But he was more than a productive medical scientist, he was an educator and a dynamic organizer of academic departments.

In 1955 he was appointed to the chair of microbiology at Queens University, Belfast. There he was known as a gifted teacher with an interest in improving methods of student education. He also set up a virus research group that continued for many years. He brought together his interests in virology and human health by being involved in the evaluation of the new poliomyelitis vaccines. He was not afraid to point out that some polio virus vaccines were dangerous, that a multiple sclerosis vaccine from the USSR contained rabies virus and he was one of the first voices raised to say that we had reached the point when smallpox vaccination was doing more harm than good. It was typical that he took up the last cause after he had been involved in the care of a child who had died from infection with vaccinia virus.

To the surprise of some colleagues he moved to become professor of pathology and director of the Bland-Sutton Institute at the Middlesex Hospital in London in 1966. The Institute was badly in need of the vision and the zealous re-organization that he provided. He planned new laboratories and obtained the money to fund them. He appointed new staff and encouraged the development of undergraduate and postgraduate students and also the technical staff. He introduced the idea of a common room that was genuinely common to all grades of staff and encouraged a community spirit within the organization. His personal research was squeezed out by the amount of administration this task required, though important research was done in the facilities he produced. So after all this success it was a further surprise when he left in 1973 to become postgraduate dean for the South West Thames Regional Health Authority. There he quickly learned the new job and introduced new ideas for the continuing education of doctors in that area until he retired in 1981.

He was not the sort of man who was overlooked. He was tall and well built with a ruddy complexion though he lost his hair early. He was physically vigorous and had a ringing Scots accent. In his speech and demeanour he was emphatic and entered with enthusiasm into whatever he was doing. However deeply he felt about a subject he was likely to add a smile and a wry joke when he raised it and he knew how to join in a party.

He was very concerned about social issues and justice. While living in Belfast he was greatly saddened to see how many children in opposing camps went to separate schools and were brought up on rhymes and chants of abuse from those on the other side. He and his wife were staunch supporters of Amnesty International. At the height of the Cold War he was one of a party of three British virologists to visit the USSR. In Moscow we visited institutes for poliomyelitis and other research, but over breakfast in the hotel George gave his frank views of the soviet system, even though we were pretty sure our conversation was being recorded. But he was also interested in the diseases of the colony of captive African baboons that we saw in Sukhumi and the epizootiological studies on plague at the institute in Irkutsk. He was excited to see something of the ecology of the great rift valley in which Lake Baikal lies and was reminded of his own experiences on field trips in Uganda. Everywhere his warm personality echoed the warmth of the Russian scientists and, as two of us were rather inexperienced in drinking alcohol, we explained that when hospitality was expressed in glasses of vodka George drank for all of us!

He continued campaigning after his retirement, adding to issues such as hospital closures and land mines by founding a ginger group called the Rowhook Medical Society which met at his home in Sussex to take up topics such as refugee health, terminal care, NHS reforms and racial discrimination.

He married Brenda Cook in 1941 and they had two sons and two daughters. Their home was renowned for its warmth and hospitality.

Some friends felt that he was not given as many honours as he deserved, though Johns Hopkins included him on their list of ‘one hundred heroes of public health’. But dynamic and clear-headed individuals who speak their mind in situations where reform is needed do not expect to be beloved by the establishment and in their more reflective moments do not want to be. He will be honoured in the lives of all he touched for good, even if many will not know what he did for them.

David Tyrrell

[Brit.med.J., 1997,315,1238-9; The Guardian, 8 Aug 1997; The Independent, 18 July 1997; The Times, 1 Aug 1997]

(Volume X, page 107)

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