Lives of the fellows

William Charles Cockburn

b.14 October 1914 d.24 November 1993
MB ChB Aberd(1936) DPH(1946) MRCP(1958) MD(1963) FRCP(1971)

W Charles Cockburn was a leading epidemiologist who was at the forefront of organising and developing the World Health Organization’s surveillance of viral disease.

He was born in Banff, Scotland, the son of a farmer and educated at Aberchirder School and at Aberdeen University. His junior hospital appointments were in the south - at Leicester Royal Infirmary, King George’s Hospital, Ilford, and the West London Hospital, Hammersmith. During the war years he served in the RAMC and reached the rank of major, but was invalided out in 1943, when he spent a year as resident physician at the City Hospital, Aberdeen.

In 1946 he started on what was to be his main career path when he was appointed as director of the Epidemiological Research Laboratory of the Public Health Laboratory Service (PHLS). In 1955 he also took on the administrative directorship of the Central Laboratory of the PHLS at Colindale in North London. He held these posts until in 1961 he moved to Geneva as chief medical officer of the Viruses Diseases Unit of the World Health Organization. He remained there until he retired as head of the Communicable Diseases Division.

He was prepared for his work at Colindale by the training he received at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine under such men as Sir Austin Bradford Hill [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.234]. At Colindale he co-ordinated the field trials of the whooping cough vaccine established by the Medical Research Council, organized a study of ‘provocation’ poliomyelitis and studied the effect of gamma globulin for the prevention of rubella. He also began to analyse and interpret the masses of clinical and laboratory data acquired by the service, assembling and editing the Weekly Summary - which grew in due course into the Communicable Disease Reports. In addition he published a report on the outbreaks of food poisoning which had been notified to them. These were the result of applying his talent for personal negotiation and diplomacy and also for meticulous and comprehensive assembly of masses of data. The outcome was that for the first time there was an overall picture of the distribution and variation of microbes and infections around the country.

When he arrived at WHO the Virus Unit was already running an international programme of surveillance of influenza virus infections based on Sir Christopher Andrewes’ [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VIII, p.8] idea of setting up a world-wide network of laboratories passing epidemiological information to Geneva and viruses to the World Influenza Centres. Cockburn not only encouraged and supported this scheme, but also recognized WHO could play a valuable role in encouraging the study of many previously unknown respiratory and other viruses then being discovered. The role of the viruses and the help given by WHO turned out to be rather different from the case of influenza. However, he arranged that active research laboratories were designated as WHO Reference Laboratories for respiratory-, entero- and arthropod-borne viruses. Ultimately they were called WHO Centres for Reference and Research, a concept and a title now applied to laboratories in many other fields of interest and importance to WHO. The directors of the original laboratories met every year or so to report on progress, discuss problems and organize such combined projects as the production of reference reagents, the collaborative establishment of virus serotypes, the training of staff and so on. It turned out that only rarely did any of these viruses sweep across the globe like influenza, but surveys of virus isolations were made to establish this. Basic science was facilitated by Cockburn's organizational skills, hospitality and shrewd judgement. The understanding and the contacts obtained in this way enabled WHO to choose the best segment of the problem to tackle and evaluate. This led to the development of the current Acute Respiratory Infections Programme which has grown up alongside and is now in the process of being fused with the Diarrhoeal Diseases Programme.

He was an amiable person to meet, somewhat rotund with thinning hair and a characteristic Scottish accent. Those who worked with him found him to have a formidable capacity for detail and for organizing the work of others. He often showed personal kindness, helping juniors to advance in their careers. On the other hand, if he thought someone was being awkward or had judged the science or the situation wrong, he would tell them so, bluntly, but without malice.

He married Christine Rose Innes in 1940 and they had one son who took up a profession in agricultural science. His wife was a social scientist who worked in the International Labour Office while they were in Geneva. They moved to Edinburgh when they retired.

David Tyrrell

(Volume X, page 68)

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