Professor Jerry Morris: Scientist who first demonstrated the link between exercise and health

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The Independent Online

Professor Jerry Morris was one of the most significant figures in public health and in the history of British health care. He discovered the link between health and exercise and was a key mover in the health-care advances of the 20th century.

Morris was born in Liverpool shortly after his parents arrived in the United Kingdom, his father a Hebrew scholar and teacher from Poland. They soon moved to Glasgow, where Morris grew up in a multi-lingual family and where he saw social deprivation on a daily basis. It was his father who first introduced him to the importance of exercise, encouraging him and his brothers to join him in a four-mile walk once a week; if they did it in an hour, they got an ice cream. Under an hour and they got a choc-ice. "Many years later, when I became interested in these things, I challenged him and he had no idea where he got this four miles an hour from," he recalled earlier this year,

In an interview in September, Morris described himself as a "do-gooder", while his close friend of 30 years, Dr David Roy, called him, "A man of few vices and high moral principle". At the age of 12 he offered his services to help his local branch of the Labour Party. They turned him down as he was too young but he returned to become a member at the age of 16, and was a lifelong supporter of the party until his vocal opposition to the Iraq war inspired him to write to Tony Blair and to vote for the Green Party.

Educated in Glasgow and at medical school in London, he qualified as a doctor in 1934. His early career was at the Nottingham Public Health department and as Assistant Medical Officer of Health in Middlesex from 1939 to 1941. He spent the remainder of the war in India and Burma as a clinical specialist in the Royal Army Medical Corps and was involved in the early trials of penicillin. He also helped set up and run a very successful hospital in the swamps of Assam, despite appalling conditions. Subsequently, he worked for the Medical Research Council's Social Medicine Unit in North-west London, the London Hospital in the East End and, from 1967, at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM).

Morris entered the field of medicine due to his over-riding ambition to find out why inequalities in health affected different types of people. During the 1930s he investigated juvenile rheumatism. On his return from the War, he was plunged into the exciting world of the creation of the National Health Service and the advances that were made in just a few years. He also began an important and long-lasting working relationship with the social statistician and pioneer of the post-war welfare state, Richard Titmuss, when he read the latter's Poverty and Population published just before the War. His relationship with Titmuss lasted until the latter's death in the 1970s, and according to Titmuss' daughter Anne Oakley was "an unusually vital working partnership." Despite Morris' overseas posting during the War, he published three papers with Titmuss, hailed by the social medicine pioneer John Ryle as "the first example of a practical social medicine."

In 1949 Morris made one of the most significant discoveries in post-war health – the link between lack of exercise and ill-health, specifically heart desease. His research among London bus drivers and conductors showed that, though both jobs were routinely filled by men with similar social backgrounds and status, yet there was a discrepancy in the heart-attack rate. Today it seems clear to all of us that exercise can help us avoid a number of illnesses, from heart disease to diabetes and obesity related illnesses but then the link was unthought of. Rigorously tested and analysed, his paper, Coronary heart disease and physical activity of work, was only published in The Lancet in 1953, when Morris was truly convinced of the results.

During the 1950s Morris published pioneering papers on infant mortality and did ground-breaking research on the influence of physical exercise on coronary heart disease. His work in the late 1960s and early 1970s was concerned with cardiovascular disease. He wrote a pioneering textbook in 1957, Uses of Epidemiology, which was effectively a blueprint for the epidemiology of chronic disease.

Morris's long association with Titmuss, and also with the social statistician Brian Abel Smith of the London School of Economics, helped form health policy under the Labour governments of the 1960s. The creation of community physicians, responsible for community diagnosis and intended to be the linchpin of the National Health Service in the UK, was also due to his work in this field. At LSHTM, the MSc in Community Medicine was established under his guardianship to train the new breed of public health physicians and he played a central role in the formation of the Faculty of Community Medicine (now Public Health).

Morris was a member of many significant post-war health committees, from the first Royal College of Physicians committee on smoking and air pollution in the 1950s to the Black committee on inequalities in health in 1979. His most recent work concerned the minimum income required for healthy living, something he was as passionate about as he was for the need for a minimum wage as a way of achieving good health for the whole population. His research team has already established that a threshold of income is needed for a minimum standard of health and in discussions in a recent podcast on LSHTM's website he urged the need for the acceptance of minimum wages around the world on the basis of the health criteria which he and his co-workers defined.

Morris and his wife Galia adopted two children, David and Julia, and took in a third, Myron, who was a refugee from Eastern Europe and a survivor of the concentration camps. Galia worked as a social worker for the family Welfare Association.

The Director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, Professor Sir Andrew Haines, said of Morris, "He was a towering figure in the history of epidemiology and public health. His work on the role of physical activity in preventing cardiovascular disease has had a worldwide impact. The elegance of design of his landmark study, comparing the incidence of heart disease in bus conductors and bus drivers, who were similar in many respects apart from the differences in exercise as a result of their occupational roles, provided early and persuasive evidence of the protective effect of physical activity. His book The Uses of Epidemiology influenced generations of students and remains a valuable text to this day. His continued commitment to reducing inequalities was evidenced by his recent work on the minimum income for healthy living, which deserves to be acted upon by policy-makers. He continued to work at LSHTM almost until the end of his life and was an abiding inspiration to colleagues. He will be sorely missed but has left a legacy of outstanding research and scholarship that will continue to influence future generations."

His colleague at LSHTM, the public health historian Professor Virginia Berridge, said in a celebration for his 90th birthday, "Historical research on post-war health policy and the papers and recollections from colleagues and former students indicate how Jerry's career symbolises the post-war redefinition of what is meant by the health of the public and how to improve it. He looks to the future, while at the same time historians and others recognise his enormous role in the post-war redefinitions and research emphases of public health."

Having worked, gone swimming and pedalled on his exercise bike until the last couple of weeks before his death, Jerry Morris died from pneumonia after a short illness and is survived by his adopted children David and Julie. His third child, Myron, died a few years ago. He also leaves four grandchildren.

Sally Alcantara

Professor Jeremy Noah Morris, physician: born Liverpool 6 May 1910; Professor of Public Health, University of London, at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, 1967–78, Hon. Research Officer, 1978-; married 1939 Galina Schuchalter (died 1997; one adopted son, one adopted daughter, one adopted son deceased); died London 28 October 2009.