Professor Sir Richard Doll (1912-2005)

Humanists UK was sorry to hear of the death of doctor, epidemiologist and Patron of Humanists UK, Sir Richard Doll. His retirement at the age of 92 led to a long feature in The Observer Magazine in April 2005 on “The Man Who Saved a Million Lives” by proving the link between smoking and cancer.

He was widely respected for the integrity and persistence with which he researched the connections between lifestyle, workplace exposure and illness throughout his long career. A former smoker, he led the way in giving up when he saw his research results – but he saw education and stopping children starting to smoke as the best measure to combat smoking-related disease. One of his other services to humanity was demonstrating that a bland diet did not help people suffering from peptic ulcers, thus saving them from a very dull diet.

Both he and his wife Joan, who died in 2001, had humanist funerals. The following extract from humanist officiant Nigel Collins’ address at the funeral of Joan Doll describes one of their services to the humanist movement, the founding of the Agnostics’ Adoption Society: “Family life was also important to her. By her first marriage she had a son Tim, and then, in 1954 and 1956 respectively, Nicholas and Catherine were added to her new family unit with Richard. It was the discovery at this time of the potential difficulties of adoption for the religiously uncommitted that inspired Richard and Joan to found the Agnostics’ Adoption Society – something for which the following generation of such would-be parents had cause to be grateful.”

This eminent and very successful scientist revealed an endearingly modest side when he wrote that he would be “happy and honoured” to accept Humanists UK’s invitation to be a Patron “if you regard me as sufficiently distinguished”.

Update, December 2006

Eminent scientists defended the reputation of Sir Richard Doll in a letter to The Guardian on Saturday December 9, 2006, after suggestions that week that, in accepting payments from a chemical firm for 20 years, he had compromised his research and reputation for integrity. “Richard Doll still deserves our respect,” wrote Professor Colin Blakemore, Chief executive, Medical Research Council; Dr Mark Walport, Director, Wellcome Trust; Martin Rees, President, Royal Society; Professor John Bell, President, Academy of Medical Science; and Professor Alex Markham, Chief Executive, Cancer Research UK:

“Richard Doll was one of the world’s greatest cancer researchers. To this day and in the years to come, many tens of millions of people, in the developing as well as the developed world, will owe their lives and health to his studies. Richard Doll died last year at the age of 92. It is with dismay that we now hear allegations against him that he cannot rebut for himself…

…Richard Doll willingly made his expert advice available to industry and to government. The personal papers that he generously donated to the Wellcome Library included correspondence with commercial and other organisations. On the basis of those papers, it has recently been suggested that his advice to industry somehow compromised his own publications. We know of no evidence to support this allegation. He was open about these consultancies and felt it appropriate that companies should seek expert advice on the safety of their products.

It was in the character of this remarkable man that he donated private income to charities and to Green College in Oxford, which he helped to found in 1979 to enhance academic research in the medical sciences. Richard Doll changed the way scientists think about the causes of disease and the methods they use to investigate these. He identified some of the major threats to human health and, in doing so, saved countless lives. He should be remembered with fondness, respect and gratitude.”

Even Cristina Odone, not usually a friend to humanists, weighed in with support: “Richard Doll was a hero, not a villain“, she wrote in The Observer, on Sunday December 10, 2006.