Sir Richard DOLL (1912–2005)
12 Rawlinson Road, Oxford
William Richard Shaboe Doll is considered one of the most important medical scientists of the twentieth century and played a major part in preventing many millions of premature deaths from smoking. He was born in Hampton to Henry Doll, physician and surgeon, and his wife Kathleen, a celebrated concert pianist. He attended Westminster School where he proved an outstanding mathematician but he opted to enter the medical school at St Thomas’s Hospital. He was by now an atheist and a member of the Communist Party (an affiliation he maintained until the brutal suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956). In WWII he served with the RAMC.
When the MRC sought to account for the dramatic rise in lung cancer deaths since the 1920s, Doll, assisting the great pioneering epidemiologist Austen Bradford Hill, investigated smoking as a likely cause. The results in 1950 indicated a strong association between cigarettes and lung cancer. This bombshell met with incredulity from the medical establishment and resistance from the tobacco industry. One criticism was that the study had been retrospective and unreliable. Doll then set about prospective research on a cohort of some 34,000 volunteer doctors who as heavy smokers made ideal subjects. The results confirmed the original research and also revealed the link with cardiovascular disease. Doll with his later colleague Richard Peto continued to refine the study of the effects of smoking for the next fifty years. He applied his methods to the hazards of radiation, and detection of occupational and environmental hazards such as those presented by asbestos. Striking results again often met with corporate denial and intransigence. Doll countered with unwavering determination to report his results. Always a scientist dedicated to establishing the facts, he left the campaigning to others.
In 1969 he became Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford, the first epidemiologist to hold the post. He inevitably made Oxford the cynosure of epidemiological studies but he won over the clinicians too by creating five new medical chairs, transforming the clinical school into a distinguished and thriving department. He became the first warden of Green College which he conceived initially as a single-subject institution designed to meet the academic and social needs of clinical students, a bold and controversial idea which met with some opposition in the early days. Doll persuaded the Texan philanthropist Cecil Green to provide the funds for the new college elegantly housed in the Radcliffe Observatory and adjoining buildings. The college later amalgamated medical with business and social studies and is now known as Green Templeton College. He received many honours: he became an FRS in 1966, was knighted in 1971 and in 1996 became a Companion of Honour for ‘services of national importance’. Many honorary degrees and fellowships were awarded to him both at home and abroad.
After retirement in 1983 the Dolls went to live at the Rawlinson Road house. In 2001 the loss of his beloved wife Dr Joan Faulkner, who had had a distinguished career as a senior scientific administrator at the MRC, was a shattering blow. He went on working every day at the Oxford Cancer Epidemiology Unit and the Clinical Trial Service Unit and saw the opening of the new Richard Doll Building in 2005 shortly before his death.
- Sources: Smoking Kills: the Revolutionary Life of Richard Doll by Conrad Keating;
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography article by Richard Peto and Valerie Beral
- Picture of unveiling ceremony
The ceremony was held at 12 Rawlinson Road on 7 June 2015. The speaker was Professor Sir Richard Peto, FRS, epidemiologist and close colleague of Sir Richard Doll. The event was attended by Richard Doll’s son and daughter, Professor Ingrid Lunt, Acting Principal of Green Templeton College, the Lord Mayor of Oxford, and the Chairman of Oxfordshire County Council among others.
Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board
RICHARD DOLL CH
Regius Professor of Medicine
who discovered the
main hazards of smoking
Green Templeton College