Lives of the fellows

William Richard Keatinge

b.18 May 1931 d.11 April 2008
MB Cantab(1955) BChir(1956) PhD(1960) FRCP(1991)

William Richard Keatinge (‘Bill’) was professor of physiology at the London Hospital Medical College and Queen Mary and Westfield College, London. His most significant work was to show how to prevent death from extremes of temperature. Using science and a range of volunteers such as students, colleagues and members of his daughter’s swimming club, he proved that people who lived in countries with either very hot or very cold climates were less likely to die of either hypothermia or heat stroke because they had adapted their way of life. Siberians, for example, wore four or five layers of clothes which they increased if necessary, and people living in hot countries kept their windows closed in daytime to stop the hot air getting in and only opened them to let the cool air in at night. This work was highly relevant for those caring for the elderly and vulnerable. He found that old people died by contracting common diseases due to mild cold stress in everyday life not through sitting in inadequately heated houses. Deaths in hot weather, he claimed, were not due to air pollution or the thinner ozone layer, but because elderly people failed to take measures to keep cool. More of them usually died at the start of a heat spell than at the end because they had failed to adapt.

He was born in London, the son of Sir Edgar Mayne Keatinge, who was a farmer and Tory MP, and his wife Katherine Lucile. During the Second World War he was evacuated by ship to Canada at the age of nine and attributed to this experience his self confidence and independence. Educated at Rugby School on his return, he studied medicine at Cambridge University and St Thomas’ and qualified in 1956. He did house jobs at St Thomas’ before joining the RNVR as a surgeon lieutenant to do his National Service. While serving in the Navy, he worked with divers and this experience was to establish an interest which would lead to his life’s work.

When he was demobilised, he returned to Cambridge as director of medical studies at Pembroke College from 1958 to 1960. He then spent a year as a Fulbright fellow at the San Francisco Cardiovascular Research Institute. On his return he took up Medical Research Council appointment at the Radcliffe Infirmary Oxford, and was made a fellow of Pembroke College, Oxford.

In !968 he was appointed reader in physiology at the London Hospital Medical College and Queen Mary and Westfield College. Swiftly becoming a professor, he spent the rest of his working life there, and continued into retirement as an emeritus professor. At the thermal physiology research unit at Queen Mary and Westfield he carried out research, partially funded by the European Union, on the body’s response to extreme temperatures and why some people seem able to survive swimming in icy waters which would cause others to die of hypothermia. His advice was often quoted in the national press and disseminated by charities such as Help the Aged. In 1991 he was elected dean of medicine.

Over 100 research papers were published by him, on human physiology and medicine, and on vascular smooth muscle. He wrote two textbooks, Survival in cold water (Oxford, Blackwell Scientific, 1969) and Local mechanisms controlling blood vessels (London, Academic Press, 1980). Another, more popular, work, Hazards from cold, heat and poisons in daily life: how to avoid them (2007) is available to be downloaded at

Much of his later working time was spent in Russia. He had many friends there as he spoke the language well and loved Russian literature. A gregarious person and good raconteur, he told many stories of his experiences, including ‘breaking into’ an eye hospital and, on another occasion, eating raw horse meat. He also spent time in Alaska studying the temperature of polar bears around the time of their hibernation and, the story goes, was chased by a bear when the anaesthetic wore off.

He enjoyed outdoor pursuits such as dinghy sailing, climbing and forestry, and was also fond of history and classical archaeology.

In 1955, he married Margaret Ellen Annette (usually known as ‘Annette’) née Hegarty and they had two daughters and a son. Annette died suddenly in 2000 and he married Lynnette Nelson. When he died, from the prostate cancer that he had had for 30 years, Lynnette, and his children from his first marriage, survived him.

RCP editor

[BMJ 2008 337 1150]

(Volume XII, page web)

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