Professor Sir David Weatherall: 1933-2018

It is with great sadness that we learnt of the death of Sir David Weatherall this weekend.

Sir David Weatherall, fondly called ’Prof’ by those who knew him, was a general physician, a haematologist and clinician scientist whose research focused on the genetics of blood disorders affecting haemoglobin, such as thalassaemia and sickle cell disease. Together with his long-standing scientific colleague John Clegg, David developed new methods for measuring the synthesis of the alpha and beta chains of Haemoglobin, providing the first clear evidence of how thalassaemia arises. David’s work made it possible to detect these common genetic disorders early in pregnancy, enabling antenatal diagnosis.

His characterisation of the mutations causing thalassaemia enabled numerous families to be offered genetic counselling and led to the eradication of thalassaemia in some parts of the world. His work sparked the revolution in the application of molecular biology to all aspects of clinical medicine starting over 30 years ago when he established the first Institute of Molecular Medicine in the UK, based at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, and part of the University of Oxford.

As Nuffield Professor of Medicine, David inspired several generations of clinicians and scientists to investigate the molecular basis of human diseases and apply this knowledge to improve human health. He was instrumental in setting up international consortia to tackle genetic diseases and working with the World Health Organisation had a passion for improving the management of common diseases in developing countries. His impact as a leader, teacher and mentor was acknowledged worldwide.

Sir David had a glittering scientific career, becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society (1977), and a Member of the US National Academy of Sciences (1990). He won numerous awards, including the 2010 Lasker Prize, which ranks alongside the Nobel Prize for Medicine. He was knighted in 1987, and appointed the Knight Grand Cross of the British Empire in the 2017 Birthday Honours, for his services to medicine.

Professor Doug Higgs, Director of MRC WIMM, said: ’The MRC Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine is just one part of his enormous legacy encompassing David’s unique approach to medicine, science and mentoring. For those of us who knew David well, he was the perfect friend and colleague. He was not only a great physician scientist, but also erudite and humorous. He will be very fondly remembered by us all.’