Lives of the fellows

Jeremy Noah Morris

b.6 May 1910 d.28 October 2009
CBE(1972) MA Glasgow(1930) MRCS LRCP(1934) DCH(1937) MRCP(1939) DPH(1947) FRCP(1957) Hon MD Edin(1974) Hon FFCM(1977) Hon DSc Hull(1982) Hon FRSocMed(1991) Hon DSc Loughborough(2002)

Jerry Morris was an epidemiologist who demonstrated the health benefits of exercise. Until shortly before he died of pneumonia and kidney failure he was working in his office at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine on a regular basis, the school from which he never fully retired, but where, as emeritus professor of public health, he continued to write papers and supervise research. He joked that he was probably one of the oldest ever recipients of a Department of Health research grant, which he received in his nineties.

Jeremy Noah Morris was born in Liverpool, the son of Nathan, a Hebrew scholar and linguist, and Ann née Yoselofsky, Jewish immigrants who had escaped the Czarist pogroms in eastern Poland. The family soon settled in Glasgow. Jerry always identified himself as a Glaswegian and he proudly never lost the accent. He would talk about the poverty in which he was brought up, and how this influenced him in later life. In an oft told story, his lifelong interest in exercise and physical fitness was imbued in him at a young age by his father who would take him and his brothers for long and brisk walks on a regular basis, rewarding him with ice cream. He was one of three boys, his brother Isaiah, also a doctor, was killed in Palestine in 1948 during the War of Independence; his brother Max became one of the most influential teachers and left wing thinkers of his generation, later president of the National Union of Teachers, and who died in his nineties.

Having first graduated from the University of Glasgow, the family moved to London in 1928, and Jerry graduated from UCH in 1934. The first three years of his working life were spent in the public health department in Nottingham, where he developed an early passion for understanding the causes of rheumatic heart disease in the young, and the start of his commitment to uncovering health inequalities.

He joined the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1941 and spent the years of the Second World War in India and Burma. He claimed to have been the first doctor to have used penicillin shortly after it had been made available there, in a camp hospital he ran in the Assam swamps. He rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel.

Shortly after returning to the UK, and an indication of his already flowering reputation and expertise in epidemiology, he was appointed to the Medical Research Council (MRC) in Mill Hill on a fellowship. In 1947 he completed his diploma in public health medicine at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and won the Chadwick prize. In the mid-1950s he was appointed professor of social medicine at the London Hospital for eight years, but he then returned to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine where he remained until he was “99 and a half”. Alongside his continued research and prodigious academic writings he developed and oversaw a new programme for the training of doctors in public health medicine. In 1957 he published a widely-used textbook on the epidemiology of non-infectious disease (Uses of epidemiology, E&S Livingstone, Edinburgh and London).

Early in his career he was appointed director of a newly developed ‘social medicine division’ of the MRC and remained in that position, working out of both the London Hospital and subsequently the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, until his ‘on paper’ retirement in 1972.

At an early stage his relationship with Richard Titmuss and Brian Abel Smith flowered, and he was able to play a key role in health and social policy developments throughout his career. Jerry is reported as saying that this relationship generated what was really the earliest systematic research that identified the social contribution to the development of disease. His first major research, and possibly his most compelling, was into the relationship between exercise and heart disease, and he famously compared the incidence of coronary heart disease in bus drivers with bus conductors, showing unequivocally the beneficial impact of regular exercise. He was able to cut through the research fog and implement simple measures such as the waistband size of the trousers of the conductors and drivers to demonstrate the prime relationship between exercise and heart disease rather than to the relative size of the waist. In Simon Kuper’s revealing article in the Financial Times (11 September 2009), Jerry relates not only how painstaking his approach to this, and in fact all, research was, but also the detailed three-year long analysis (before the age of computers); he also describes the time he and invited sceptics challenged and again challenged the data before publication. There was general shock and disbelief at the hypothesis on the work’s publication in the Lancet in 1953 (Nov 21 265 [6795]:1053-7; Nov 28 265[6796]:1111-20), and it was many years before the impact began to be felt in the habits and daily lives of many people in the developed world. It is perhaps not surprising that Kuper decided to entitle his article ‘The man who invented exercise’.

He smoked regularly until he saw Sir Richard Doll’s [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web] report pre-publication, and gave up (with some difficulty) and at that time also took up jogging. He claims to have been the first person to regularly jog on Hampstead Heath, and would take quiet pleasure in later years by the numbers of people now doing the same. Despite this he felt that successive governments had done too little to encourage exercise in any meaningful way, and thus addressing what he considered the catastrophic Western epidemic of obesity, both in children and adults. Only recently he was writing of the importance of targeting exercise at the burgeoning elderly population as a major public health initiative.

Jerry Morris received many awards, including a CBE in 1972. Some colleagues have felt that he was insufficiently recognised by the establishment in this country, although Jerry himself never subscribed to this view, being a retiring and somewhat diffident man (although not when it came to giving his view on important issues of the day, be they research related, political or how good the newest detective thriller was). He was most proud of being awarded, together with his colleague and friend Ralph Paffenbarger [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web], the first gold medal in sports science by the International Olympic Committee.

He practised what he preached, and his daily jogging only stopped when his feet let him down. Thereafter he swam every day, including on Christmas day. It was only in the last but one year of his long and productive life that he stopped swimming as he found it difficult to get into the pool without assistance and he was embarrassed when other swimmers would rush over to help him in and out of the pool.

He was a committed member of the Labour party and was proud to have played a part in influencing social policy, although he generally had a poor opinion of politicians and did not feel that successive Labour governments had made much impact in those areas he was particularly interested. He broke with the party after the invasion of Iraq and remained disenchanted until his death.

Right up until he died Jerry Morris maintained a weekly routine that could only inspire awe. His sharpness of mind could cause a slight frisson of fear as he would interrogate one on the latest article in the BMJ, the latest Philip Roth novel, the latest fudged government initiative (which he usually and pithily dismissed as ‘disgracefully inadequate’ or ‘a scandal’). He also wanted to talk regularly about the latest review of the latest opera in the Guardian, the latest David Hare play, all aspects of politics including, from his hospital bed at the Royal Free Hospital, the Post Office Worker’s strike and the British National Party, and the latest Donna Leon detective novel. On a personal note, if I was disappointing him with my lack of knowledge about the latest issue he could be distracted by my producing good quality chocolate (his secret vice), not to be shared with anyone.

In his funeral oration, his son David said that, in addition to his regular trips to his office at the School, he took his daily exercise, latterly on his exercise bike (at least 60 minutes per day) and regular trips to the theatre (his last play was the Pitman painters at the National Theatre), the opera (his last opera visit was to a performance of Don Carlo at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in September), or concerts, his last concert being to a performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah - a favourite. In addition to this every week he read the BMJ, The Lancet (cover to cover), The New England Journal of Medicine, The Times Literary Supplement, The New Yorker, the Guardian daily, The Observer, and Radio Times (he was an avid listener to Radio 3). This did not take into account the academic papers, the research theses and reports. And then there was his dependence on good detective novels. And of course, the latest novel de jour, and of these he was reading at least three a week until his death.

He was married for 58 years to Galia (née Schuchalter), who died in 1997. He is survived by two adopted children, Julie and David, and predeceased by an adopted son, Myron, who survived the holocaust. ( Myron was actually Galia’s half-brother, her parents having divorced and her father having remarried and settled in Eastern Europe before the war.)

A man of very few vices, he led his life practising what he preached, setting an enormously high standard to everyone fortunate enough to come in contact with him. He was the liveliest of companions and the kindest and cleverest of men.

David H Roy

[The Daily Telegraph 3 November 2009; Times Higher Education 19 November 2009; The Times 27 November 2009; The Independent 1 December 2009; The Guardian 3 December 2009; Brit.med.J., 2009 339 4679]

(Volume XII, page web)

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