Lives of the fellows

Philip Henry Nicholls Wood

b.23 October 1928 d.16 June 2008
MB BS Lond(1955) MRCP(1971) FFCM(1972) FRCP(1978) FFPHM(1989)

Philip Wood was an eminent epidemiologist who, as director of the Arthritis Research Campaign’s (ARC) unit for epidemiological research in Manchester, made a major contribution to improving the lives of people with disabilities. His most significant contributions included the revision of the classification of disease through his work for the World Health Organization (WHO) and his development of a new concept of disablement.

He was born in Wales, the son of a Cornish mother and maintained links with Cornwall throughout his life. He was educated at Churcher’s College, Petersfield, Hampshire, and then studied medicine at Sheffield University, but only managed to complete his first year. Other interests, including amateur dramatics, eclipsed his studies. He was ‘de-reserved’, called up and spent the next two years completing his National Service, serving with the Royal Army Medical Corps as a medical hygienist and later as a chief clerk at the Military Hospital in York.

Following his discharge from the Army, he applied to every medical school in the country. St Bartholomew’s was the only one to offer him a place. He finally qualified in 1955.

After a series of prestigious junior hospital posts, he moved to the Royal Postgraduate Medical School’s rheumatology department to study the pharmacology of aspirin. His work helped uncover the extent to which aspirin caused gastrointestinal bleeding, leading to a loss of iron and subsequent anaemia.

Encouraged by his boss and friend, Allan Dixon, in 1963 he moved to Buffalo University, New York, as an assistant professor in the rheumatism service. At Buffalo, influenced by Evan Calkins and Warren Winkelstein, he began to develop his interest in the epidemiology of chronic rheumatic disease.

In 1965, he returned to England, to take up a post as the ARC senior research fellow in epidemiology at the rheumatism research centre, University of Manchester. Three years later, he became director of the unit and renamed it the ARC epidemiology research unit. He remained as director until his retirement.

Initially, he continued with the conventional ‘old style’ epidemiology which the previous director, John Lawrence [Munk’s Roll, Vol.X, p.294], had done so effectively. One early study, for example, investigated a report of an excess of gout sufferers in the Cotswolds. With the support of local doctors, Philip examined patients in Bourton-on-the-Water and Stow-on-the-Wold, but failed to confirm the report. Over time, he began to pursue several new aspects of epidemiology, as part of a more modern approach. This included exploring the ways social science could be applied to the study of rheumatic diseases and disability. In 1979, he described the unit’s new emphasis as 'studying social and economic aspects of rheumatic diseases and most importantly ways of providing care for the very many sufferers in our population.'

He became extremely skilled at writing constitutions for the organisations he was involved with. Up until 1983 there were two separate bodies representing rheumatologists in the UK, with a broadly common membership – the Heberden Society and the British Association for Rheumatology and Rehabilitation (BARR). From 1971, Wood worked to bring them together to form one organisation. He rewrote parallel constitutions for each and also wrote the constitution of the British League Against Rheumatism, the organisation set up to represent British rheumatology at the European and International Leagues Against Rheumatism. Finally, in the early 1980s, the Herberden Society and BARR were brought together to form the British Society for Rheumatology.

In 1977, World Rheumatism Year, he wrote a series of seven reports for ARC. The first, The challenge, problems and progress in health care for rheumatic disorders outlined in detail a region-by-region survey of the services then available for sufferers. In another report, The price we pay, he focused on the economic costs of rheumatic diseases, both to the community and the affected individual. His Undergraduate education in rheumatology outlined the provision of teaching in rheumatology. Taken together, the reports provided an overview of the tasks facing ARC in seeking better provision for rheumatic disease.

Philip was also a consultant for WHO for more than 20 years. He rewrote the section on diseases of the locomotor system in the 9th edition of the International classification of diseases and updated this for the 10th edition. He also wrote the monumental International classification of impairments, disabilities and handicaps: a manual of classification relating to the consequences of disease (WHO, Geneva, 1980). The book makes a distinction between impairment, disability and handicap. Impairment was defined as the loss of a part or function, such as loss of a limb or sight, disability described the activities the subject was unable to perform, while handicap was the disadvantage the disability caused compared to those without the impairment. The book has become a standard reference, and has subsequently been updated and revised as the International classification of functioning, disability and health (WHO, 2001).

Philip was widely consulted by agencies in Czechoslovakia, France, Ireland, New Zealand, Spain, Switzerland and the USA, and in the UK by the Department of Health and Social Security, other government bodies and the BBC on aspects of rheumatism and disability. His literary output in terms of original articles, editorials, reviews and contributions to books was enormous: he wrote 17 reports and reviews of rheumatic diseases and disabilities for WHO and was one time editor of four professional scientific journals.

At Manchester he taught the fundamentals of epidemiology to medical students and postgraduates. When the post of professor of community medicine became vacant, Philip was offered the job, but declined, preferring the freedom of his position with ARC. He was appointed as an honorary professor of community medicine in Manchester in 1983.

He married Cherry Norma Charlish, an art teacher, in 1952. They shared a love of literature, music, painting and politics. They retired to Cornwall in 1990. Philip became an expert on Cornish local history, planted trees, and returned to painting. He died from an abdominal aneurysm and is survived by Cherry and their four daughters – Julia, Vyvyan, Eleanor and Beatrix.

[The Times 4 September 2008; The Guardian 10 October 2008; Brit.med.J., 2009 339 2851]

(Volume XII, page web)

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