Lives of the fellows

Donald Darnley Reid

b.6 May 1914 d.26 March 1977
MB ChB Aberd(1937) MD(1946) PhD Lond(1949) MRCP(1958) DSc Lond(1959) FRCP(1965)†

Donald Reid was born at Buckie, a small fishing village on the coast of Banffshire, a few miles from Lossiemouth. His father was an engineering inspector in the service of the General Post Office. Reid took his second name from his mother, Mary Darnley, the daughter of a railway contractor. Her father, John Darnley, had lost money constructing a railway line to Lossiemouth and her early years were thereby impoverished. Donald was an only child, had great affection for both his parents and was considerably influenced by his mother’s strong character and great integrity. When he was about six years old the family removed to Inverness, and here he passed the rest of his childhood, being a pupil of the Inverness Royal Academy. He studied medicine at the medical school of the University of Aberdeen, serving on qualification as house physician and house surgeon at the Royal Northern Infirmary (1937—1938). Having joined the Volunteer Reserve of the Royal Air Force he was called up in September 1939 and posted to Bomber Command.

As a station medical officer he was in close contact with the aircrews, for whose courage and endurance he had a profound admiration. In such circumstances, not conducive to research, he set about trying to measure objectively their physical and mental reactions to the tremendous stresses to which they were exposed, and to assess what might be done medically to alleviate them. This original work brought him to the attention of Sir Harold Whittingham (q.v.), the Royal Air Force Director-General of Medical Services, and Reid was posted to the research section of the medical directorate. Here he continued his studies with statistical epidemiological guidance from Dr (later Sir Austin) Bradford Hill, who was attached to the section.

He was demobilized in 1946 having risen to the rank of squadron leader, and returned to civil life as a lecturer in the department of medical statistics at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Here his own war experiences and contacts made him a very successful teacher of the mature medically qualified students who were returning from the war to take up careers in public health. Developing his own career at the London School he was appointed reader in epidemiology and vital statistics in 1950; in 1959 the title of professor of epidemiology was conferred upon him and in 1961 he succeeded Sir Austin Bradford Hill as director of the department of medical statistics and epidemiology.

During these years he was awarded the degree of MD (with commendation) of the University of Aberdeen, and the PhD and DSc of the University of London. In 1948 he spent a period as visiting associate professor of biostatistics at the University of California.

After a brief excursion into the field of mental disorders, an interest which he never wholly lost, (WHO Report on Epidemiological Methods in the Study of Mental Disorders, 1960), Reid’s main research interest lay in the influence of the environment upon the spread and incidence of respiratory diseases. His early work and assessment of the relevant literature were summed up in the Kilroy lectures of the Royal College of Physicians (Environmental Factors in Respiratory Disease, 1958), and later in life he returned to one special section of the field, bronchitis, in the College’s Marc Daniels memorial lectures (The Social Background of Bronchitis, 1976).

In between these dates he published many papers, alone or with colleagues, on the epidemiology of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. In particular, in the early part of the period, he promoted international studies of migrants who had moved from the UK or Norway to the USA, and whose mortality in the new environment could be contrasted with that prevailing in their native countries. As a result of this work he became a great traveller, which he greatly enjoyed, for he was a good ‘mixer’, and made a host of friends in many parts of Europe and the USA.

Another major research undertaking was the medical examination of nearly 20,000 UK male civil servants, and a long-term follow-up to measure their subsequent mortality from chest and heart diseases, and the relative importance of the possible causes (see e.g., Myocardial ischaemia, risk factors and death from coronary heart-disease, 1977).

His work in the cardiovascular field, jointly in the UK and USA, led to an honorary fellowship of the American College of Cardiology. Reid was chairman of the medical section of the Royal Statistical Society in 1956-1958, and president of the section of epidemiology and community medicine of the Royal Society of Medicine in 1960-1968. He served as consultant in epidemiology to the Royal Air Force, on the Clinical Research Board of the Medical Research Council, as chairman of the Epidemiology Panel of the National Coal Board, and on the Royal College of Physicians’ sub-committee on cardiac rehabilitation.

To these and many similar bodies, he brought clear thinking and, sometimes, forthright views — though under his apparent self-confidence lay (to those who knew him well) a modest diffidence, and even doubt regarding his own powers. Nevertheless he built up and administered with success a large department of medical statistics and epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and thus made a notable contribution to the development of the subject in Great Britain. The School has instituted a medal and cash prize to be given in his memory for work in epidemiology. This is awarded trienially in association with the Royal College of Physicians.

Outside his professional life his main interests were music and photography. In 1939 he married Christine Macleod who had been with him at the Inverness Royal Academy, and who was the daughter of Donald James Macleod OBE DLitt, HM Chief Inspector of Schools and a noted Gaelic scholar. She bore him two daughters, one of whom took a medical qualification at the University of Edinburgh.

In his later years Reid had been under treatment for hypertension. He died suddenly and without warning at his home in Hampton-on-Thames.

Sir Austin Bradford Hill

† The list of honorary degrees is too lengthy to include in entirety.

[, 1977, 1, 981; Lancet, 1977, 1, 763; Times, 30 Mar 1977]

(Volume VII, page 493)

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