Lives of the fellows

Robert Ian McCallum

b.14 September 1920 d.15 February 2009
CBE(1987) MB BS Lond(1943) MRCP(1944) MD(1946) Hon DOH(1969) FRCP(1970) DSc(1971) MFOM(1978) FFOM(1979) FRCP Edin(1988)

Robert Ian McCallum, former professor of occupational health at the University of Newcastle, was probably the most distinguished occupational physician of his era. Occupational medicine was in its infancy when Ian entered it in 1947, and his academic contributions were at the forefront of establishing the credentials which have enabled it to take its place alongside the traditional clinical specialties.

Ian’s parents, Charles Hunter McCallum, a company director, and Janet Lyon Smith, were both Scottish, but the family lived in Dulwich, London. Nevertheless his mother was determined that her children should be born in Scotland, so returned to her parents’ summer home at Largs, Ayrshire, to give birth, so that Ian could claim a Scottish birthright by blood and location. He attended Dulwich College, where he distinguished himself in amateur theatricals and won a music prize.

From Dulwich he went to Guy’s Hospital Medical School, where he held house surgeon and house physician appointments, before moving on to Farnborough, Joyce Green, Sevenoaks, Preston Hall and the Brompton hospitals. It was during this period that he contracted pulmonary tuberculosis, which initiated his interest in pulmonary disease, industrial dust diseases in particular, and led to his appointment as research assistant to R C Browne [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.70] at the department of industrial health at King’s College, University of Durham, which was actually in Newcastle upon Tyne. (It became the University of Newcastle in 1965.) He was awarded a Rockefeller fellowship by the Medical Research Council and from 1953 to 1954 was honorary lecturer at the department of occupational health graduate school of public health at the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he studied pneumoconiosis in the local miners. In 1954 he took up a permanent post at Newcastle working under R C Browne and was appointed honorary consultant in occupational medicine to the Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle upon Tyne. Browne retired in 1976 and Ian McCallum took over as head of the department. He was appointed professor of occupational health and head of the department of occupational health and hygiene at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne on 1 August 1981.

He was the prime mover in establishing the North of England Industrial Health Service, of which he was company secretary, consultant and honorary director between 1969 and 1984. The North of England Industrial Health Service was unique at the time. It was set up as a charity, but was designed to make a surplus to pay its staff and contribute to the department’s finances. Its aims were to improve and maintain the health of people at work by the provision of specialised knowledge on a subscription basis. The service was criticised at the time for being the commercial arm of an academic department, which is now commonplace. From being a much criticised activity, particularly by some members of the university, it came to be regarded as an example of the way in which departments could develop and acquire much-needed funds.

With the construction of the Tyne tunnel at Newcastle, Ian McCallum became interested in the subject of decompression sickness in both tunnellers and divers and, especially, the condition of aseptic bone necrosis. As a result he set up, with Philip Griffiths and Denis Walder (professor of surgery at Newcastle), the Newcastle registry of bone radiographs of decompression workers, which led to the recognition of the aetiology and classification of what is now termed dysbaric osteonecrosis. It also led to his appointment as chairman of the Medical Research Council’s decompression sickness panel.

Among his many other appointments were honorary consultant in occupational medicine to the British Army, member of the Advisory Committee on Pesticides, British Council visiting consultant to the USSR in 1977 and to Turkey in 1987. He was visiting lecturer at the University of Baghdad College of Medicine in 1987 and honorary consultant to the Institute of Occupational Health in Edinburgh from 1985 to 2003. He was president of the Society of Occupational Medicine from 1979 to 1980, president of the section of occupational medicine of the Royal Society of Medicine from 1976 to 1977, president of the British Occupational Hygiene Society from 1983 to 1984, and dean of the Faculty of Occupational Medicine of the Royal College of Physicians from 1984 to 1986. He gave the Ernestine Henry lecture of the Royal College of Physicians in 1987 on the industrial toxicology of antimony, the same year that he was made a CBE.

Antimony was also the subject of a monograph, Antimony in medical history: an account of the medical uses of antimony and its compounds since early times to the present (Edinburgh, Pentland Press, 1999) and was one of at least 120 publications between 1945 and his death on an astonishingly wide variety of subjects encompassing almost the whole of occupational medicine and with excursions into medical history. He was editor in chief of the first edition of Fitness for work (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1988), now in its fourth edition and the standard textbook on occupational medicine, along with Hunter’s diseases of occupations, of which McCallum was also a co-editor. He also edited the British Journal of Industrial Medicine from 1972 to 1979.

His personal interests were as wide as his professional, ranging from Persian rugs, which he collected, to Scottish alchemists and the Ripley scrolls. He was a committed Christian and thought deeply on theological matters and, as a keen churchgoer, he always contributed to his local church as a steward or elder. He was an enthusiastic teacher of Scottish country dancing and could at times be found wearing a splendid kilt with a very eye-catching sporran. Always recognisable from his bow tie, dating from the days when a necktie was obligatory for any doctor, Ian told me that he began to wear one when he had to perform gynaecological examinations, as a bow tie was less inconvenient than a conventional cravat. His outwardly stern appearance belied a dignified man with a great sense of humour and a dry wit and an adventurous sense of fun, as when I remember him jumping naked into the pool used for testing diving bells at a research establishment in Marseilles. Ian was a very keen and knowledgeable gardener, owning three large gardens during his life with Jean, the daughter of Sir James Learmonth, the renowned Scottish surgeon, whom he married in 1952 and with whom he had four children (Helen, James, Mary and Andrew).

McCallum’s research, teaching, clinical work and his numerous publications provide a permanent legacy to occupational medicine. He was an esteemed and cultured colleague to whom others would turn for the depth of his advice, the breadth of his knowledge and the wisdom of his opinion.

Robin Cox

[The Scotsman 24 February 2009; Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 2009,66,431; The Society of Occupational Medicine Newsletter 116;]

(Volume XII, page web)

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