Lives of the fellows

Major Greenwood

b.9 August 1880 d.5 October 1949
DSc Lond MRCS FRS FRCP(1924)

Major Greenwood, the son of Major Greenwood, a doctor who practised in the East End of London, was educated at Merchant Taylors’ School. From there he went on to University College, London, with a Buxton scholarship. He finished his medical training at the London Hospital, qualifying in 1904, and, after assisting his father for some months, became a demonstrator of physiology under Sir Leonard Hill; he was Arris and Gale lecturer at the Royal College of Surgeons in 1907-08. He also studied statistics under Karl Pearson at University College, and in 1910, when his appointment came to an end, he obtained the post of statistician to the Lister Institute. During the first Great War he served as an R.A.M.C. captain till 1917, when he took charge of the medical research subsection of the Ministry of Munitions and began to study "accident proneness" and other industrial problems. Two years later he left the Lister Institute to direct the division of medical statistics of the newly established Ministry of Health, where he remained until 1928, receiving in addition the appointment of reader in medical statistics at London University. In that year he was selected to fill the chair of epidemiology and vital statistics in the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. There, in co-operation with W. W. C. Topley, he applied statistics to bacteriological research and conducted experiments on the spread of epidemics. His work was described in such publications as Epidemics and Crowd Diseases (1935), Experimental Epidemiology (1936), and a Statistical Study of Infectious Diseases (1946). He also developed an interest in psychology, rallying to the defence of the psycho-analysts, and acquired a taste for the history of his own subject that manifested itself in such works as The Medical Dictator (1936) and British Pioneers of Social Medicine (1948).

Greenwood’s service to medicine in expounding the value of the science of statistics was recognised by many honours. The Royal College of Physicians invited him to deliver the Milroy Lectures in 1922 and the FitzPatrick Lectures in 1940 and 1943, and awarded him the Bisset Hawkins Medal in 1938. He received the Royal Society’s Buchanan Medal in 1927. He was the first chairman of the statistical committee of the Medical Research Council, an office he held till 1948, and he was president of the Royal Statistical Society from 1934 to 1936.

For all his advocacy of statistics, Greenwood saw that there was, as he put it in 1924, "a risk of putting the claims of the statistical expert too high". His balanced viewpoint was the product of a mind at once scholarly and visionary. But he was never deterred from expressing his opinions by fear of opposition or unpopularity, nor did he hesitate to back his criticism of others with frank denunciation and biting sarcasm. His contempt for pretentiousness and stupidity made him appear supercilious and offhand to men of lesser intellect who were in no position to appreciate his inner loyalties and private convictions. A more human side to his character was revealed in his unstinted support for the Academic Assistance Council for the support of refugee scholars (later the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning). Wide reading in a variety of languages was his other occupation, and from this a remarkable memory enabled him to derive the greatest advantage. He married in 1908 Rosa Bant and had two sons. He died in London.

G H Brown

[Lancet, 1949; B.M.J., 1949]

(Volume IV, page 592)

<< Back to List