Lives of the fellows

David Vincent Bates

b.20 May 1922 d.21 November 2006
MRCS LRCP(1944) MB BCh Cantab(1945) MRCP(1948) MD(1954) FRCPC(1965) FRCP(1967) FRSC(1968) FACP(1975)

David Bates was a respiratory physiologist and epidemiologist who studied the effects of air pollution on health. He was born in West Malling, Kent, the son of J Vincent Bates, a physician, and Alice Edith née Dickins. His elder brother, John Alexander Vincent Bates [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.32], became a neurologist and a Fellow of the College. David was educated at Rugby and then studied at Cambridge. He interrupted his university studies to serve as a corporal in the Home Guard during the height of the Battle of Britain.

After qualifying and house jobs at St Bartholomew’s, he joined the British Commonwealth Occupation Force in Japan as an RAMC doctor, visiting Hiroshima in April 1946 and experiencing at first hand the devastation caused by the nuclear bomb blast of a few months earlier.

Returning to the UK, he joined the department of medicine at Bart’s, and under the mentorship of the professor, Ronald V Christie [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VIII, p.86], developed his interest in respiratory physiology. With Christie he wrote a number of seminal papers on the mechanics of breathing and the disturbances found in emphysema. The London smog of December 1952 became the stimulus for his interest in the effects of air pollution, which was to become a passion later in his career.

In 1955, Christie left Bart’s to become chairman of medicine at McGill University in Montreal, and he invited David to set up a clinical respiratory research unit. Now married to Margaret (née Sutton) and with two small children, David took up this position in the following year. He recruited a stellar group of researchers and the unit became the foremost in Canada, as the Meakins-Christie Institute. Fundamental research into many aspects of pulmonary function made the Institute a world leader in the field. David had the brilliant idea that differences in function in different parts of the lung might be revealed by inhaling radioactive xenon gas (133Xe) with external counting, leading to new information regarding regional lung function. He also began studying the effects of air pollutants, such as ozone, on lung function, using a plastic exposure chamber, where subjects could be studied over long periods, during rest and exercise.

Jonathan Meakins [Munk’s Roll, Vol.V, p.278], who had recruited Ronald Christie to McGill, had written an influential book in the 1920s – Respiratory function in disease (Edinburgh and London, Oliver & Boyd, 1925), and David decided that a modern version was required. Co-authored by Christie, and with the same title, it was published by Saunders in 1964, and eventually ran to four very successful editions.

His administrative skills were recognised early at McGill, and he was appointed associate dean of research in 1964, and chairman of the department of physiology in 1967. In 1972 he left McGill to become dean of the faculty of medicine at the University of British Columbia, charged with the task of doubling enrolment. Having sought to modernise medical education at McGill, he approached this appointment with great enthusiasm, and in short order effected many improvements. He saw the atrophy of academic medicine as a huge tragedy, depriving young physicians of a career in research, to the inevitable detriment of medical practice. He retired in 1987.

Throughout his career, up to the time of his death, he was deeply concerned with public aspects of environmental pollution. In addition to collaborative research with several international groups studying the physiological, developmental and epidemiological aspects of air pollution, he published two influential books, A citizen’s guide to air pollution (Montreal and London, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1972) and Environmental health risks and public policy: decision making in free societies (Seattle, University of Washington Press, c.1994). His last paper, on ozone, was published in the Canadian Respiratory Journal just three months before he died. He also published two books of memoirs and poetry, both embodying his deep humanity and intellect.

In 2003 he was inducted into the Order of Canada, for his services to medicine. On receiving the American Thoracic Society’s highest honour, the Trudeau gold medal, he posed a number of questions to himself, of which the last was to whom his career should be attributed; he answered 'my wife'. Margaret and he had a long and happy marriage, with three children – Andrew, Elizabeth and Joanna.

David Bates died of metastatic colorectal cancer. There can have been few people who have achieved as much, whilst retaining their sanity and making no enemies.

Norman L Jones

[The Lancet 2007 369 184]

(Volume XII, page web)

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