Lives of the fellows

Roy Deans Weir

b.23 February 1927 d.6 September 2014
OBE MB ChB Aberd(1950) DPH(1955) MD(1962) MRCP Edin(1970) FFCM(1972) FRCP Edin(1979) FRCP(1989)

Roy Weir was an epidemiologist and one of the initiators of the move to apply epidemiology to health services, rather than to clinical conditions and diseases. An Aberdonian, he recognised the potential of the circumscribed population and health services of the north east of Scotland, and used it to develop new uses of epidemiology, based on linked patient records across all hospital services and a few general practices. From this start, he moved on to create a research base for the evaluation of medical and health care.

The son of Henry Weir, a motor claims assessor, and Margaret Watson Weir, Roy went to Aberdeen Grammar School and then to Aberdeen University to study medicine. His studies were interspersed with a variety of sports and games, including the air squadron, and as a result of injury he missed the first sitting of his finals and the selection of local house jobs. A spell with the Sheffield Hospitals Regional Board, as a house officer and registrar, gave him a different view of the world, as did a three-year commission in the RAF, which he chose to do in what was then Rhodesia.

He had intended on a career in orthopaedics, but became interested in public health: he returned to Aberdeen to study for his diploma in public health and then an MD. The topic was what happened over a two-year period to a cohort of patients discharged from hospital; he identified much variability of follow up and outcomes. From 1956 he was a lecturer in public health at the University of Aberdeen, becoming a senior lecturer in 1965 and professor of community medicine from 1969.

During the 1960s he built a solid foundation of linked patient-based information using patients’ hospital numbers. This was the forerunner of the Scottish Community Health Index (CHI), now in everyday use. Routine uses of that data were developed, including (with Jim Crooks [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.126]) the Medicines Evaluation and Monitoring Unit funded by the World Health Organization (which is still running in Dundee), the Scottish automated thyroid follow-up register, the first patient-based study of the costs of specific patients and interventions, and, in 1977, a health economics research unit, the first in the UK and still a UK and international leader.

Roy’s innate skills were as an innovator and designer, both strategic and practical; his woodwork was always interestingly different and very much fit for purpose. He was not an empire builder; he was an inspirational teacher and leader, but he led from behind and was satisfied when the purpose was achieved, leaving others to take the credit. In a rare moment of recognition of his unusual ability to think laterally and creatively, he said that the world had been saved by his laziness. When he was a member of the Computer Board for Universities and Research Councils in the 1970s, he said that his role was to ask the ‘daft laddie’ questions. He was an early ‘nudger’, and recognised that the climate as well as the people had to be right before change could occur successfully. He was lecturing about incentives and rationing – to an unreceptive NHS – in the 1980s, long before these words became commonplace (though still not much implemented). His flexibility of thought and skill in seeing opportunities was much valued as a vice principal and then senior vice principal at the University of Aberdeen, and as vice chairman of the local health board during the 1970s and 1980s when swingeing public sector cuts were just appearing.

In 1987 he became Scottish Chief Scientist, a post designed to advise the fairly new Chief Scientist Office (CSO) on the effective use of public research money. Once again this was a time of change, in this instance the beginning of the shift of leadership from the Civil Service to politicians, which, in Roy’s view, much diminished the value of the post. Nonetheless, with Boyd Moir, the then director of the CSO, he very much helped the recognition and development of methods of applied research in an era when this was still frowned upon by basic scientists.

Roy retired to the west of Scotland in 1993. His first wife, Margaret, died in 2005 and in 2007 he married Elizabeth Russell, his long-term colleague in the department. He was possibly the longest surviving lung cancer (oat cell carcinoma) patient in the UK, for which he had a pneumonectomy in 1962. He was active until shortly before his death, when he succumbed to the slow erosion of his remaining lung by emphysema.

Elizabeth Weir

[BMJ 2014 349 6701]

(Volume XII, page web)

<< Back to List