Lives of the fellows

David Cornelius Morley

b.15 June 1923 d.2 July 2009
CBE(1989) MB BChir Cantab(1947) MRCS LRCP(1947) MD(1955) DCH(1955) MRCP(1972) FRCP(1977)

David Cornelius Morley, a professor of child health at University College London (UCL), saved the lives of countless children in developing countries and made enormous contributions to improving the health and welfare of many more. In Nigeria, where he worked as a young doctor in a mission hospital, he challenged the accepted position that all paediatric healthcare should be hospital based – he considered traditional wards ‘disease palaces’- and he set up a network of primary healthcare for children which became a model for aid agencies and governments worldwide.

Born in Rothwell, Northamptonshire, he was the youngest of the seven children of John Arthur Morley, a vicar. Educated at Marlborough College, he studied natural sciences at Clare College, Cambridge and qualified in medicine at St Thomas’ Hospital in 1947. He did house jobs at St Thomas’ and at the Royal Isle of Wight County Hospital before being called up to do his National Service and serving in the RAMC in Malaysia for a year, which was his first experience of a developing country. On his return, he decided to specialise in paediatrics, and, in 1951, he trained at the Sunderland Children’s Hospital, followed by a move to Newcastle to work on the ‘Thousand family study’ which was led by Donald Court [Munk’s Roll, Vol.X, p.77] and James Spence. This was a groundbreaking initiative which tracked the health of children in poor social and economic circumstances.

He was able to use this experience in Newcastle, when he was recruited in 1956 to a post as paediatrician at the Wesley Guild Hospital in Ilesha, Nigeria. Three missionary doctors there, Andrew Pearson, David Cannon and John Wright, had obtained a grant jointly funded by the West African Research Council and the Methodist Missionary Society to study the health and nutrition of young children in IIesha village and they asked him to set up the project and recruit over 400 local children. During his time there he also started an under fives clinic in which mothers could weigh their children and chart their progress themselves. At the University of Ibadan, he lectured in paediatrics. He was later to write of Nigeria ‘three quarters of our population are rural, yet three quarters of our medical resources are spent in the towns where three quarters of our doctors live; three quarters of the people die from diseases which could be prevented at low cost, and yet three quarters of medical budgets are spent on curative services.’

In 1961 he returned to the UK and began to do research and teaching at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Four years later, Otto Wolff [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web] invited him to join the staff of the Institute of Child Health where he became a senior lecturer in tropical child health. There he set up a tropical child health unit which was to run courses for medical staff from developing countries and continue to support them when they returned to their own areas. Staff of the unit set up a collaborative network, providing support for community health centres throughout the world and it continues to do so as the UCL Institute for Global Health.

During his work in Nigeria, Morley had observed the great need for resources in the developing world. In 1965 he founded Teaching Aids at Low Cost (TALC), a charity to provide teaching materials for the training of doctors and nurses in more than 200 countries. Over half a million books and other items have been sent abroad under this scheme. Some years later (in 1987) he started the Child-to-Child Trust with Hugh Hawes; this encourages children to learn about their own health and to monitor their peers for signs of malnutrition.

He produced nearly 100 papers on topics such as severe measles, under-fives’ clinics and low cost visual aids. He published Paediatric priorities in the developing world (London, Butterworths, 1973) in which he set out his principles of community based medicine. Some considered the advice he gave in it to be ‘20 years ahead of its time’ and it became the inspiration for many healthcare policies of the World Health Organization, Unicef and national governments. He also wrote, with J E Rohde, and G Williams, Practising health for all (Oxford, University Press, 1983).

A great innovator, he had devised, while in Nigeria, the ‘road to health charts’ which provided a simple daily record of children’s weight in order to detect early signs of malnutrition. A method was found by which even illiterate mothers could record their infant’s weight. Other great life savers were a double ended spoon to aid oral rehydration, an asthma inhaler made from old plastic bottles and a low cost device to measure a baby’s temperature. He had started early trials of the measles vaccine and used his own children as ‘guinea pigs’.

Many honours came his way, from the CBE in 1998 to being made a chief by Owa-Oye of Ilesha in 1987. A film festschrift of his life and work was produced for his 80th birthday and televised. A fellow paediatrician who encountered him in India in the late 1960s said of him that ‘he had a vision of what was needed for children to lead a more healthy life , a generosity of desire to share the information he’d learnt as a paediatrician, and a passion for this which infected everyone who came in contact with him.’ After retirement in 1989, his efforts on behalf of children in poor countries were to continue for another 20 years and it was said that his deep Christian faith was a key motivating factor in his life.

In 1952, he married Aileen née Leyburn, whom he had met at Sunderland Hospital where she was a ward sister. Her father, George, was a policeman. They had a daughter and two sons. When he died of a heart attack while on holiday in Dorset, Aileen and his children and grandchildren, survived him.

RCP editor

[BMJ 2009 339 3633; Lancet 2009 374 446; The independent ; The Telegraph ; The Guardian ; Wikipedia - all the above accessed on 2 March 2015]

(Volume XII, page web)

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