Lives of the fellows

John Pemberton

b.18 November 1912 d.7 February 2010
MRCS LRCP(1936) MB BS Lond(1936) MD(1940) MRCP(1941) DPH Leeds(1956) FRCP(1964) FFCM(1974) FFCMI(1976)

John Pemberton, professor of social and preventative medicine at Queen’s University Belfast, was an eminent epidemiologist who was responsible for the birth of three scientific societies – the International Epidemiological Association (IEA), the Society for Social Medicine and the All-Ireland Society of Social Medicine.

John was born in Romford, Essex, the son of Augustus Charles Pemberton, a steward at Christ’s Hospital, Horsham, and Marie Lottie née Talbot. He was a pupil at Christ’s Hospital in the 1920s, and then went to University College London to study medicine, qualifying in 1936.

As a student he was influenced by left wing politics and became interested in the links between social conditions and health. While a third year student, he published ‘Malnutrition in England’ in the University College Hospital Magazine (July-August 1934). This was republished in the International Journal of Epidemiology (32:496-498), with his commentary, in 2003. He was profoundly affected by the Jarrow hunger march in 1936 and he, with some of his fellow students, met the marchers when they reached London, helped feed them and tended their feet. His contact with Jerry Morris [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web], Philip D’Arcy Hart [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web], Somerville Hastings and F A E Crew reinforced his views of the importance of social and environmental factors in the aetiology of many diseases.

After qualifying, John was a house surgeon to Wilfred Trotter [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XI, p.582] and then obstetric house surgeon to Clifford White [Munk’s Roll, Vol.V, p.445] at UCH. Following these appointments, he was recruited by Sir John Boyd Orr to lead a mobile nutritional research team which undertook a major survey in England and Scotland. This showed the effects of poverty on nutrition (and health) and was acknowledged by Lord Woolton (Minister of Food during the Second World War) as the foundation for the successful nutrition policy during the war. One of the ‘control’ schools in this study was Gordonstoun, where John examined the chest of the current Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, saying it was the ‘nearest I ever got to a Royal’. One of his team was Gwen, who became his wife in 1937.

Following this research appointment, he became a casualty officer at the Miller General Hospital from 1939 to 1940. He was called up in 1940, but was found unfit, having had the symptoms of tuberculosis. He became first assistant at Sheffield Royal Hospital and, in 1941, medical tutor. Between 1942 and 1945, he worked with Sir Hans Krebs [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.35] on experiments on conscientious objectors, who were allowed to volunteer for the project as an alternative to serving in the Forces. The research involved human vitamin deficiency experiments (reported in Medical Research Council Special Report Series no.264 [London, 1949] and no.280 [London, 1953]).

He was later appointed as a senior lecturer in medicine (social aspects) in the department of medicine at the University of Sheffield and was also the first student health officer. In 1949, he became a senior lecturer in social and industrial medicine at the University of Sheffield and honorary consultant in social and industrial medicine to the United Sheffield hospitals. In 1955 he was promoted to a readership.

While in Sheffield, his research encompassed the study of the health of the elderly at home, for which, together with W H Hobson, he was awarded a prize from the CIBA Foundation for original work in geriatrics. He probably did the first comprehensive study of illness in general practice and carried out several socio-medical studies of hospital patients and student health. He also undertook a series of investigations on respiratory disease and air pollution, which was recognised by the award of funds from the Medical Research Council to create a research group on epidemiological research in respiratory disease in Sheffield, later taken on by Charles Stuart-Harris [Munk’s Roll, Vol.X, p.477].

While in Sheffield, John and his family spent many vacations in Wensleydale, Yorkshire, where he acted as a locum in the practice of Will Pickles [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.379]. Pickles was one of the earliest general practitioner-epidemiologists and became founder-president of the Royal College of General Practitioners. John was entranced by Pickles and his work, and published an outstanding biography (Will Pickles of Wensleydale: the life of a country doctor Exeter, Royal College of General Practitioners, 1972), which is still in great demand today.

Between 1953 and 1954, he visited the USA on a three-month Rockefeller travel grant, later extended to a one year Rockefeller travelling fellowship to spend time at the Harvard School of Public Health. It was there he met Harold Willard of Yale and conceived the need for an international corresponding club for researchers in the field of social and preventative medicine. This later became the International Epidemiological Association (IEA). At the foundation meeting in London in 1956, John managed to persuade his British and Irish colleagues of the need for the Society for Social Medicine, which rapidly became a successful multidisciplinary academic society.

From 1958 to his retirement in 1976, John was professor and head of the department of social and preventative medicine at Queen’s University, Belfast. While in Belfast, he continued to work on respiratory disease, being the first to show that flax (an important local product), in addition to cotton, caused byssinosis. As a result, the law was changed to include compensation for exposure to flax fibre. His research interests expanded to include coronary artery disease. In 1967, John helped form the All-Ireland Society of Social Medicine, which meets alternately in Eire and Northern Ireland and has eliminated all communication barriers in the fields of public health, social and preventative medicine and epidemiology. His work in Belfast has been described by Peter Elwood in the Ulster Medical Journal (2003 Nov;72[2]:98-102).

John was greatly interested in making epidemiology an important tool in global health and, through the IEA, promoted the strengthening of this capacity in developing countries. He served on several World Health Organization committees and was a temporary consultant on several visits to India, the USSR, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. In 1976, he was appointed as a Milroy lecturer at the Royal College of Physicians and was the first Robert Cruickshank lecturer of the International Epidemiological Association. He served on many important national committees, including the Health Education Council.

Following his retirement from the chair in Belfast, he and his family lived in Hathersage near Sheffield, a picturesque part of the Peak District in the centre of England. He continued to remain active in academic life. For the first seven years he was involved in organising the postgraduate training of doctors in public health in the UK. He continued to do research on the high death rates attributed to osteoporosis in some parts of England due to fracture of the neck and femur.

In his retirement, he hiked and indulged his love of painting and literature. The interior walls of his home were decorated with a fascinating and varied array of paintings and drawings, some related to his international travels. Apart from academic writing, he wrote letters to The Guardian, The Independent and other newspapers on matters related to his interests and his radical views. He regarded the introduction of the internal market in the National Health Service with apprehension.

Over his long life, he was a contributor and driver of many of the improvements in the lives of the UK population, as well as in the development of epidemiology and in medical education. He enriched the lives of all those with whom he came in contact. He was kind, gentle as well as stimulating and never said an unkind word about anybody.

John and his wife Gwen, who died in 1989, had three sons: Adam is a solicitor and mediator; Patrick is a consultant paediatrician at the Princess Margaret Hospital, Perth, Western Australia; Robert was initially a biologist. John was survived by his partner, Maureen Maybin.

Walter Holland

[International Journal of Epidemiology, 1992, Vol.21, No.5, p.835-836; The Guardian 14 April 2010]

(Volume XII, page web)

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