Lives of the fellows

Percy Stocks

b.5 November 1889 d.18 December 1974
CMG(1948) BA Cantab(1910) MB ChB Manch(1913) MB BChir Cantab(1914) MD(1917) DPH(1918) MA(1920) FRCP(1948)

Percy Stocks was born in Eccles, at that time a large residential village, four miles to the west of Manchester and connected with the city by a horsedrawn tram. His early life was spent in the Victorian atmosphere of the middle classes for, in some autobiographical reminiscences, he says ‘we had a children’s nurse, a cook-general and a housemaid,’ and ‘on Christmas Day my grandfather always presented each of his half-dozen grandchildren with a five pound note’ - who had to meet him one at a time to say thank you, ‘an ordeal we did not enjoy’. From a small private school with the dignified title of Highfield College, he won an entrance scholarship to Manchester Grammar School, then situated in its original site in Long Millgate. He started on the classical side of the school but moved over to science for his final two years. Here he must have come under the influence of the almost legendary Francis Jones, chief chemistry master for 47 years and through whose hands passed at least eight future Fellows of the Royal Society. Even more important to Stocks, perhaps, was the 6th form mathematics master who, he says, encouraged him to go well beyond the usual syllabus. In 1907 he won a scholarship in natural sciences to King’s College, Cambridge, where he read physics, chemistry, geology and mineralogy, and gained first class honours.

Stocks’ intention was to follow this with the engineering tripos but a visit to the University by a medical missionary so influenced him that he turned to medicine (he had been brought up as a Wesleyan). And so, having read physiology and anatomy at Cambridge, he returned to the Victoria University, Manchester and the Royal Infirmary, for his final course and clinical instruction. He gained his MB, ChB in 1913 and returning to Cambridge sat the Bchir examination and took his MB by thesis, so acquiring double qualifications.

From the Manchester Royal Infirmary, however, he acquired a wife as well as a degree. He fell in love with a staff nurse, Augusta Griffiths, daughter of a Baptist minister. They were married in 1913 and before long achieved their mutual ambition of embarking upon medical missionary work in the Far East, under the auspices of a Missionary Society. This, however, was not to be his career. ‘Gusta’ fell seriously ill and they were obliged to leave the tropical environment and return to the United Kingdom. Percy took a commission in the RAMC and for a short time served in France with a field ambulance. At the end of the war, having taken the Diploma in Public Health at Cambridge (along with his MA and MD) he entered the public health service, as assistant school medical officer in Bristol. But he hankered, he says, ‘after some kind of medical research involving the use of advanced mathematics’.

The opportunity came in 1921 when Karl Pearson sought a medically qualified recruit to his Department of Applied Statistics. Stocks was appointed and, after 5 years, became University Reader in Medical Statistics. Here, in the Galton Laboratory, he was responsible for the extensive anthropometric tests applied to students of University College, and also carried out field work on school children in London and upon the incidence of goitre in various counties. He published numerous papers, first in Biometrika and then, on its foundation, in the Annals of Eugenics, taking up problems of tuberculosis, cancer, goitre, smallpox and other infectious diseases. A notable study was one into the habits, homelife, dietary and family histories of 450 cancer patients and an equal number of controls. Only a few weak associations were found, but in many respects the lack of association was just as important, and the study is a fine, and early, example of an epidemiological survey.

In 1933, with the death of T.H.C. Stevenson, the office of Chief Medical Statistician to the General Register Office fell vacant; Stocks was appointed and there passed the major part of his professional life until his retirement in 1950. This period was productive of much of his best work, though necessarily a lot was hidden under the anonymity of the reports of the Registrar-General. Here, for example, he demonstrated with clarity the geographical variations in cancer mortality in England and Wales, the seasonal variation in deaths and, in particular, the effects of air temperature upon mortality from influenza, the increase in heart disease and the effects thereon of the rules of death certification, the influence of occupation upon mortality, and so on over the whole range of the country’s mortality records. Of these routinely collected statistics he once said that while they may not have solved problems, they had been the starting point of many an investigation - a notable example being the search for causes of the growing incidence of cancer of the lung. Much indeed is owed to Percy Stocks for these starting points.

As chief medical officer to the GRO Stocks also played a leading part in the revisions of the international list of causes of death, in the construction of a classification of morbidity statistics, and in the registration of stillbirths. As chairman or member of committees of the World Health Organisation or as UK delegate, this work took him to Geneva, Washington and Canada, journeys which he greatly enjoyed and upon which he made many friends. Doubtless it was, at least in part, this international work that led to his CMG in 1948. In the same year he was elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians for distinguished services to medicine. Other awards were the honorary fellowship of the American Public Health Association, the Jenner medal of the Royal Society of Medicine (1956) and the Bisset Hawkins medal of the Royal College of Physicians (1959). This latter honour was particularly appropriate because Bisset Hawkins, Professor of Materia Medica at King’s College, London, was one of the founder members of the Royal Statistical Society and served on its first council.

Stocks himself was elected to the Society in 1925, served on the Council in 1945-46 and 1948-51, and read two papers - on the effects of the dispersal of children in 1939-40 upon the incidence of infectious diseases. He was also active at the Royal Society of Medicine, where he served on the Council of the Section of Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine. In retirement he became a senior research fellow of the British Empire Cancer Campaign, and from 1951 to 1957 occupied himself with studies of air pollution and smoking in relation to cancer of the lung, and the exploration of soil chemistry in relation to cancer of the stomach.

In his reminiscences Stocks described himself as "a nervous and reserved boy always too ready to let others do the talking". This characteristic remained with him in adult life - though he must have overcome it, one would believe, as a lay preacher in the chapels of his faith. But his friends and colleagues in medical statistics will recall him as a shy and retiring man, always quietly friendly, always ready to help but always somewhat withdrawn. Apart from work, his main joy in life was foreign travel and he confesses, that having never lost a boyhood enthusiasm for railways, he had ‘travelled over practically every line in Great Britain and Switzerland and the most interesting lines in Norway, Austria, N. Italy, U.S.A. and Burma’.

He was survived by his wife (they had no children) and I am greatly indebted to her for allowing me to quote from the manuscript of his reminiscences.

Percy Stocks will be remembered, nationally and internationally, as one of the great contributors to the development and use of medical statistics.

Sir Austin Bradford Hill

[, 1975, 1, 216; Lancet, 1, 117; J. Roy. Statistical Soc.,1975, 138, pp. 273-274; Photo.]

(Volume VI, page 423)

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