Lives of the fellows

Patrick Joseph Lawther

b.9 March 1921 d.6 June 2008
CBE MB BS Lond(1950) MRCP(1954) FRCP(1963) DSc(1971) FFOM RCP(1983)

Patrick (‘Pat’) Lawther was the UK’s leading authority on the effects of air pollutants on health and a pioneer in the field of occupational medicine. After undergraduate training in chemistry and medicine at King’s College, London, and St Bartholomew’s Hospital, he qualified as a physician and was appointed director of the Medical Research Council’s air pollution research unit at Bart’s. The unit was set up in response to an enquiry into the great smog that affected London in December 1952 and which claimed at least 4,000 lives. Lawther, ably assisted by Robert Waller and other colleagues, began a long series of epidemiological studies of the effects of air pollutants (smoke and sulphur dioxide) on the health of a group of patients suffering from chronic bronchitis. An association between smoke levels and patients’ symptoms was demonstrated. This seminal series of studies under-pinned the UK’s Clean Air Act and led to the first World Health Organization guidelines on air quality, indeed the guideline values were based on Lawther's work. Additionally, Lawther plunged into respiratory physiology, undertaking a series of heroic experiments on himself and colleagues involving personal exposure to high concentrations of sulphur dioxide. His interests extended to carbon monoxide and he edited a notable monograph based on a symposium on this subject held in the United States. His links with workers in the United States were strengthened by his contributions to the development of US regulations on air pollution and Morton Lippmann, the leading US authority on the effects of air pollutants on health, spent a period in Lawther’s unit re-analysing data collected by Lawther and his colleagues.

The MRC air pollution unit closed in the late 1970s and Lawther moved, for the last years of his career, to the MRC toxicology unit at Carshalton. Lawther made important contributions over a long period to committees of the Ministry of Defence. The medical committee at Porton Down, dealing with research into mechanisms of physical injury (trauma studies) and the effects of organophosphorus compounds, and the Royal Navy’s underwater medicine (diving and submarines) committee took up a good deal of his time. Amidst these activities in research and in public life he continued to practice as a consultant physician at Bart’s and at the Brompton Hospital.

All of this represents a distinguished professional career. But, by those who knew him well, Pat Lawther will be remembered, in addition, for his unique personality and personal attainments. He was unusually well-read, especially in poetry, for which he had an excellent memory. His range of interests was remarkably wide: the works of W B Yeats, Eric Gill, typography, cricket, church architecture, the history of the City of London, of the Royal College of Physicians and, of course, of his beloved St Bartholomew’s Hospital Medical School. He contributed generously to the library of his old school, founding the Lawther Library, and to that of the Royal College of Physicians. His donation of a splendid Golden Cockerel edition of the King James Gospels (designed and edited by Eric Gill) and of the Gregynog Press edition of the Arabic romance, The stealing of the mare, to the RCP library was especially generous. His powers as a raconteur were unequalled: at any committee or scientific meeting he would invariably be surrounded by a circle of friends who were convulsed with laughter.

Lawther’s contribution to science was recognised by the award of a DSc by London University; his contribution to public life was marked by the conferral of a CBE. Of both these awards Pat was very proud. Lawther’s wife predeceased him, as did his daughter; he is survived by his sons, Anthony and Christopher, and by his grand-children.

R L Maynard

(Volume XII, page web)

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