Lives of the fellows

David Cameron Morrell

b.6 November 1929 d.19 March 2012
OBE(1982) KSG(1982) MB BS Lond(1952) MRCS LRCP(1952) MRCP(1955) DObst RCOG(1958) FRCGP(1972) FRCP(1976) FFPHM(1986) MD Plymouth(1999)

David Morrell was Wolfson Professor of General Practice at St Thomas’s Hospital School of Medicine, later the United Medical and Dental Schools of Guy’s and St Thomas’s Hospitals (UMDS), from 1974 until his retirement in 1993. He was born in Wimbledon, London. His father William was a French polish manufacturer. He attended Presentation College, Reading, and Wimbledon College, and trained at St Mary’s Hospital Medical School, London, qualifying in 1952. He held pre-registration posts in medicine and surgery at St James’ Hospital, Balham, and, following an obstetric residency, was physician to RAF Hospital Ely from 1954 to 1957, where he was promoted to flight lieutenant.

He entered general practice in Hoddesden, Hertfordshire, in 1957, moving to a lectureship at the recently-established university department of general practice in Edinburgh in 1963, where Richard Scott became the world’s first professor of general practice in 1966. The Edinburgh department was practice-based, situated in the same building as an NHS general practice, which was staffed by members of the academic department. It was this model of academic general practice that Morrell brought to London when he was appointed as a senior lecturer at St Thomas’s in 1967. He initially worked from a shop-front premises in Westminster Bridge Road and later moved to a purpose-built surgery at the foot of a prize-winning 1970s block of flats in Kennington Road, where he built up a loyal team of academic colleagues and began to develop initiatives in teaching, training and research that would have profound effects on the future of his discipline and on general practice nationally.

David was a great exemplar of the three-stranded clinical academic – able to carry out the full range of clinical, research and educational activities, as well as running a busy practice and university department – and he excelled in all three. The Kennington Road practice became a focus for excellence in patient care and soon began to attract the brightest trainees who were drawn to the opportunities to carry out practice-based research in an environment where curiosity was combined with scientific rigour and robust research methods. Morrell was greatly helped in developing his research programme by the close alliance between the general practice department and Walter Holland’s department of public health medicine, which provided much of the academic support for the early research studies. Morrell’s group were intensely interested in the epidemiology of symptoms of illness in the community and the forces that turn people into patients, and the titles of some of his early papers exemplify this theme well – ‘Patterns of demand in general practice’ (J R Coll Gen Pract 1970 Jun;19[95]:331-42), ‘Expression of morbidity in general practice’ (Br Med J 1971 May 22;2[5759]:454-8) and ‘Studies of general practice demand, need, quality’ (Br Med Bull 1974 Sep;30[3]:209-13). He conducted one of the first randomised controlled trials in general practice, on the effect of an educational booklet on patients’ management and consultation behaviour in response to minor symptoms and his increasingly sophisticated and rigorous research programme laid the foundations for a number of younger colleagues who have gone on to leadership positions in academic primary care.

Much of his work on symptoms and consultation behaviour formed the basis for a landmark publication Practice: a handbook of primary medical care (London: Kluwer-Harrap, 1976-94), edited jointly with Marshall Marinker and Jack Cormack, which provided a systematic and evidence-based approach to patient care in general practice. Morrell was also highly innovative and active in undergraduate education, setting up an excellent teaching programme of home visits, surgery teaching and seminars at St Thomas’s, and in training. Not only did he establish, with his colleague Peter Higgins [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web], at Guy’s, London’s first vocational training scheme for general practice, but he also set up one of the first master’s courses in general practice. The UMDS, later Guy’s, King’s and St Thomas’s, and now King’s College, London, MSc has continued in modified form for over 20 years, and has helped launch the careers of a further cadre of clinical academics. He was a founding member of the Association of University Teachers of General Practice, later the Society for Academic Primary Care, and was chairman twice. He also chaired the medical education committee at St Thomas’s. He was appointed OBE in 1982 in recognition of his services to general practice.

David retired in 1993 and was elected president of the British Medical Association in 1994 – the first academic general practitioner to hold this office. In his presidential address he challenged the BMA to ‘lead us out of the mire of market medicine to the high ground of professional medical care’. This comment was merely one example of David’s ability to see ahead, and to understand how general practice would contribute to undergraduate education, to medical research and to the improvement of patient care within the NHS.

Less well known was David’s work with pilgrimages to Lourdes, where he and his wife travelled annually for many years and where he was appointed chief medical officer, responsible for the health care of the pilgrims. He had a strong Catholic faith and, in 1981, he coordinated the care of 3,000 sick pilgrims at Southwark Cathedral during the visit of Pope John Paul II, when he also organised the security and care at St Thomas’ Hospital for the Pope, who had been recently shot in Rome. He received a Papal knighthood for his contribution to the care of the sick and disabled, and to family life.

David was a kind and supportive colleague, and in the flurry of correspondence that followed his death the word ‘hero’ recurred most often – he was an unswerving champion of academic general practice, and must be seen as being to a great extent responsible for the vitality and contribution of the discipline in the present day. He travelled widely while BMA president and was often invited to lecture abroad, but his real loves were his family, his garden – Higher Green, Epsom was a very dangerous place to be a weed – and his pipe, to which he was also dedicated. He leaves his wife, Joyce (née Eaton-Taylor), whom he married in 1953, three sons and two daughters, 17 grand children and eight great-grandchildren.

Roger Jones

[Brit.med.J. 2012 344 3227]

(Volume XII, page web)

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