Personal Note from Nick White, SE Asia Chairman, MORU Tropical Network
Professor David Weatherall had the greatest influence on my professional life and for that I will be eternally grateful. I went to work for him as a young medical registrar at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford in November 1977 (Tim Peto was my houseman!). Before I went to Oxford I had never heard of him – a reflection of my ignorance as he was already recognised as a brilliant scientist and an emerging leader in British academic medicine. I first met him (we all called him “Prof”) in his book lined office with old leathery chairs and a thick haze of aromatic pipe smoke. I said I wanted to work in the tropics one day, and he told me that he too was interested in tropical medicine and, if possible, would make it happen. He certainly did, and that is why we have a 40 year medical research collaboration based in Thailand and a younger unit in Vietnam.
“Prof” was a brilliant scientist and a perceptive, wise, witty, gentle, compassionate and inspiring physician. He would always enquire about his patient’s social circumstances, and he always examined them. This was an era when senior physicians and surgeons often felt and acted as if they were on a higher plane than the remainder of humanity. David Weatherall hated all that pomp and flummery. He treated everyone as equals. He had a sharp wit, an open and enquiring mind, and he took genuine satisfaction and pride in the success of others. “Prof” inspired and supported a generation of young physicians and scientists. He became the UK’s leading academic clinician, a towering figure in the molecular medicine revolution, an internationally acclaimed scientist, and he was showered with honours and accolades – but his character never changed.
In the late 1970s the Wellcome Trust were seeking to set up a new tropical medicine research unit in East Asia. David Weatherall and Peter Williams (then the Director of the Wellcome Trust) visited several potential collaborating institutions. The Faculty of Tropical Medicine, Mahidol University were interested in this idea and so the Bangkok unit began in 1979 as a collaboration between the Faculty and the Nuffield Department of Medicine, Oxford University headed by David Weatherall. David and Mary Warrell came out to start the research work and I joined them the following year. “Prof” supported us through good times and bad, and although we were successful on the scientific front there were bad times too. We came under a lot of pressure in the late 1980s and I thought we might have to close the Unit and leave Thailand. This led to the founding of the Vietnam unit. David Weatherall in Oxford and Bridget Ogilvie at the Wellcome Trust gave us unwavering support throughout those hard times. Without that we would not have MORU today.
I kept “Prof” up to date with everything that happened in our Unit, and our research progress because he was always interested and encouraging, and he invariably gave wise advice. For such a brilliant mind he was interestingly averse to communications technology – he never mastered computers or e-mail, preferring written letters and personal meetings. As far as I know he never possessed a mobile ‘phone! In scientific and clinical meetings, he would close his eyes, and appear to be completely asleep, but as soon as the speaker stopped he would open his eyes and ask pertinent questions! He was a determined pipe smoker – and on two occasions I witnessed smoke billowing from the pocket of his white coat! Long after he retired I would visit him whenever I was in Oxford to report as he wanted to know how we in MORU were getting on, what advances we had made, and whether there was anything he could do to help. He had a great affection for Thailand, sharing research interests on the study and management of haemoglobinopathies, collaborating with leading figures in Thai medical research, and later advising the Prince Mahidol Award foundation. He was very happy to see the research progress, and particularly the translation to human benefit, and also the career progression of young investigators from Thailand and neighbouring countries. We certainly owe him a lot.
He was a very great man.
You can read Sir David’s recollections of how MORU came about (old PDF not entirely accessible, we apologise for the inconvenience) and also what Wellcome and the University of Oxford say about Sir David’s remarkable career.