Lives of the fellows

Edward Maurice Backett

b.1916 d.2 December 2009
BSc Lond(1939) MB BS(1944) MRCP(1950) DPM(1955) FRCP(1965) MFCM(1974) FFCM(1975)

Maurice Backett was professor of community health at the University of Nottingham Medical School and an outstanding academic who made an enormous contribution to the establishment and later development of social medicine in UK. He belonged to a small group including Jerry Morris [Munk’s Roll Vol.XII, web], Archie Cochrane [Munk’s Roll Vol.VIII, p.95], John Pemberton [Munk’s Roll Vol.XII, web] and Alice Stewart [Munk’s Roll Vol.XI, p.550], who were responsible for developing social medicine, which became recognised as the academic arm of public health. They contributed to the recognition of the disciplines of epidemiology and social sciences as both acceptable for research and medical education, and for demonstrating that they had equivalent rigour to the more recognised, traditional medical sciences. This led to the establishment of pioneering departments of social medicine in medical schools in the 1950s. Indeed one of Maurice’s regular stated aims was to ‘make soft data hard’.

Born at Fawkham, Kent, the son of Frederick Ernest Backett, a businessman and author, and Louise Beatrice Backett née Stewart-Smith, Maurice was educated at St Christopher School in Letchworth. He went to University College London to read zoology and psychology, where he met his future wife Shirley Paul Denton-Thomson. He then studied medicine at Westminster Medical School, which was evacuated to Birmingham during the Second World War. He qualified in 1944.

From 1944 to 1947 he served in the RAF in Europe and North Africa. During his time in the services, he worked on issues relating to mental health and morale of RAF crew, mostly bomber command, and also with Sir Aubrey Lewis [Munk’s Roll Vol.VI, p.284] on the relationship between mental health and gastrointestinal problems.

Following his demobilisation he was a Nuffield fellow in social medicine and then a research worker at the Medical Research Council. In 1951 he was an assistant to Francis Avery Jones [Munk’s Roll Vol.XII, web] at the Central Middlesex Hospital. He was then a registrar on the professorial unit at the Maudsley, and subsequently a senior lecturer at Guy’s Medical School and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

In 1956 Maurice became the first holder of the chair of social medicine at the University of Aberdeen. He was an untiring enthusiast and outstanding communicator, completely committed to the research and policies with which he was concerned. He maintained a worldwide network of like-minded colleagues from a range of disciplines. Through correspondence, visits, secondments and his commissions from the World Health Organization (WHO) and similar organisations, he brought to the medical school in Aberdeen an international array of visiting experts and researchers who also contributed to undergraduate and postgraduate teaching. He himself was a charismatic and inventive teacher who fostered a substantial cohort of medical graduates with a greater experience and understanding of the determinants of disease and health as they arise from different modes of living. His legacy for social medicine in Aberdeen was a focus on innovation in health research.

In 1969 he moved to Nottingham to the foundation chair in community health in the new medical school. This provided him with a number of opportunities in an environment that encouraged change, and where there was reasonable funding for development. He was able to bring his unique skills and enthusiasm to a curriculum where ‘the community’ was a central theme. A number of students were able to carry out research in community health as part of their degrees, and for many this laid the basis of their future careers. Maurice gathered round him individuals with a rich mix of skills and created a truly multi-disciplinary and multi-professional department that was exciting, stimulating and sometimes rather tense, but this led to an ambitious research programme. The innovation in undergraduate education was followed by a postgraduate masters that drew individuals committed to public health development and change, both from the UK and overseas.

The department had very strong international links, a particularly important one being with the Eastern Mediterranean region of WHO. Maurice was an inveterate traveller and continued his international work after retirement. One of his outstanding skills was as a rapporteur of international meetings. Often when other delegates were enjoying a weekend break or a social evening, Maurice would be drafting and redrafting conclusions and recommendations to produce clarity and logic out of a confused and contradictory discussion. Delegates did not notice that the recommendations which they happily endorsed were the ones they should have produced, but had often failed to do so.

Maurice was an inspiring teacher and a most stimulating colleague, always seeking to bring out the best in people, and willing to give praise. Many will remember the wonderful hospitality provided by Maurice and Shirley. Evenings involved the most fascinating company, often colleagues from the many countries that Maurice visited, accompanied by delightful food and excellent wine.

From his posts, he inspired large numbers of colleagues and students, who went on to become leaders in public health and epidemiology across the world, and have also held top posts in university administration, international organisations, research and health services.

Maurice Backett was survived by his three children, two daughters and a son.

James McEwan

[Brit.med.J., 2010 340 1821]

(Volume XII, page web)

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