Lives of the fellows

Neville Roy Butler

b.6 July 1920 d.22 February 2007
MB BS Lond(1942) MRCS LRCP(1942) MRCP(1946) DCH(1949) MD(1949) FRCP(1965) FRCOG(1979) Hon FRCPCH(1996)

Neville Roy Butler, professor of child health at the University of Bristol, was a pioneer in the use of longitudinal studies of children in the UK. Born in Middlesex, he was the son of Cuthbert John Butler, a medical practitioner, and Ida Margaret Butler née Soman. He was educated at Epsom College, and then Charing Cross Hospital Medical School.

After qualifying in 1942, he held house posts at Charing Cross Hospital. He served in the Royal Army Medical Corps and then, following his demobilisation, he was a house physician at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children. Later that year, in 1950, he moved to University College Hospital, where he was a paediatric registrar and then paediatric first assistant. In 1954 he returned to Great Ormond Street as a senior medical registrar. Three years later, he was appointed as a consultant paediatrician to the Oxford and Wessex Regional Health Board. In 1963 he returned once again to Great Ormond Street, as a consultant and senior lecturer at the Institute of Child Health. He finally settled in Bristol, where he was professor of child health from 1965 until his retirement in 1985.

It was during the 1950s that, in collaboration with Dennis Bonham through the National Birthday Trust, he set up the 1958 Perinatal Mortality Survey, a study of all 17,000 births in Britain during one week in March 1958, together with all the stillbirths and neonatal deaths in the following three months. In the early 1960s the Plowden Committee, who were studying primary education, decided to fund a follow-up of the Perinatal Mortality Survey when the children were aged seven. This study, located at the National Children’s Bureau and jointly directed by Neville Butler and Mia Kellmer Pringle, became known as the National Child Development Study (NCDS), and still continues to this day.

In 1970 he was the driving force behind a further birth cohort study, the British Cohort Study, which also began with a perinatal survey of 17,000 babies. Surveys at 10 and 16 followed – the second managed by a charitable foundation, the International Centre for Child Studies (ICCS), which he established in 1983. Subsequent surveys took place at ages 26, 30 and 34 and, replicating the NCDS, half the cohort members’ children were also studied.

Finally, Neville gave his immense support to the setting up of the Millennium Cohort Study, which began in 2000. With hypothecated funding from the Labour Government via the Economic and Social Research Council, the study comprised a whole years’ births (amounting to 20,000 babies) and, by increasing the sample size in electoral wards with known demographic characteristics, boosted the representation of ethnic minority and disadvantaged families. Individual government departments supplemented the study’s initial budget for their own policy purposes, and the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland governments also offered additional support. Such developments can be seen as one of Neville’s crowning achievements – government signing up to the research agenda that he had pursued throughout his professional life.

Internationally, Neville Butler realised that the British findings could form a blueprint and source of knowledge for both developed and developing countries overseas. A sister organisation to ICCS was established in the USA in 1997. Either by invitation, or as a technical adviser and consultant to the maternal and child health and international classification of diseases (ICD) sections of the World Health Organization, Neville advised on how to adapt the UK work on population studies to other countries. One of the most important of his projects was in Cuba, where he inspired a highly successful birth cohort study in 1972. Modelled on the National Child Development Study and meticulously implemented, it provided a textbook example of how to design and implement such studies.

After retiring from his role of director of ICCS, Neville’s commitments continued unabated. He helped pave the way for the collaboration between the Institute of Education, University College, Institute of Child Health, National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) and ICCS that formed the Joint Centre for Longitudinal Research. Through co-sponsorship between ICCS and NatCen, the establishment of the think tank Longivew followed, devoted to promoting and improving longitudinal and life course research.

In all these ventures Neville Butler was a guiding influence. The birth cohort studies, which he did so much to pioneer, have been emulated in many other parts of the world and are now generally accepted as unsurpassed providers of crucial data about the growth, education, employment and life histories of the general population. They are used by social and other researchers, and are much in demand by policymakers at all levels. It is a tribute to his stamina and dedication that these studies are now accepted as essential tools both by researchers and policymakers.

He was a fellow of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and of the Royal College of Physicians. In 1984 he gave the Cuthbert Lockyer lecture at the RCP.

His wife, Jean (née Ogilvie), whom he married in 1954, predeceased him in 1998. He was survived by his daughters, Claire and Fiona.

Harvey Goldstein
John Bynner

[The Independent 10 March 2007; The Guardian 15 March 2007; The Times 27 March 2007; The Lancet 2007 369 1254; Centre for Longitudinal Studies – accessed 24 July 2014; University of Bristol News Professor Neville Butler – accessed 24 July 2014]

(Volume XII, page web)

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