Obituary: Professor Alan Woodruff
Saturday 24 October 1992
ALAN WOODRUFF was an internationally known figure in tropical medicine and one of Britain's foremost experts in the field. He died in Khartoum, where he was teaching the undergraduate medical students from the University of Juba to whom he had devoted much of the last 11 years since his retirement from the Wellcome Chair of Clinical Tropical Medicine at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
Woodruff was born in Sunderland in 1916, the son of a naval architect. He attended Bede Collegiate School in Sunderland and entered Durham University to read medicine, graduating with honours in 1939. After training in internal medicine in Newcastle upon Tyne he served in India and Burma, with the Royal Air Force Voluntary Reserve. Then he entered the speciality of tropical medicine, which was to occupy the remainder of his life. By this time he had obtained his MD (Durham), DTM&H (England) and MRCP (London). In 1948 he became First Assistant at the Hospital for Tropical Diseases and Senior Lecturer in Clinical Tropical Medicine at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. He was appointed to the Wellcome Chair of Clinical Tropical Medicine at London School in 1952. He served both institutions until 1981.
Woodruff's work during these years comprised care of patients at the Hospital for Tropical Diseases, teaching postgraduate students undertaking courses at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the supervision of his PhD students and administration both in the school and the hospital. His own research interests were anaemia, including that caused by parasitic infections and nutritional disorders. He undertook field- work in Africa and Central America on onchocerciasis (river blindness) and carried out trials of drug treatment for this condition in this country. He was concerned to promote laboratory research within the London School and later endowed a medal to be awarded annually to the best PhD thesis produced by a student in one of the laboratory departments.
He was one of the first people in Britain to draw attention to the dangers posed by the intestinal worm of dogs Toxocara. The larval form of this parasite causes disease in the eye and other sites in humans, particularly children. His concern in this work was to understand the transmission of the disease, to improve methods for diagnosis and treatment and, above all, to make others aware of how to prevent it.
His work on Toxocara and other subjects was published in the medical literature. He edited and contributed to specialist volumes on tropical medicine and wrote chapters on tropical diseases for several standard medical textbooks.
As his reputation grew, demands upon his time increased. He was visiting professor and examiner to universities in the Middle East and in Africa. He served the World Health Organisation on expert advisory panels on parasitic diseases, onchocerciasis and resistance of malaria parasites. He was Honorary Consultant in Tropical Medicine to the Army and to British Airways. He contributed to the work of the Overseas Development Administration through membership of its Medical Committee and to the work of Medical Research Council specialist committees. He gave a number of invited lectures including the Goulstonian (1954) and Watson-Smith (1970) lectures of the Royal College of Physicians, London, the Lettsomian Lecture of the Medical Society of London (1969) and the Halliburton Hume Lecture of Newcastle upon Tyne University (1981). The last must have given him particular pleasure as he retained throughout his life a deep loyalty to the north-east of England and to his university. He was President of the Durham University Society from 1963 to 1973.
Societies devoted to medicine and tropical medicine around the world marked his contributions with honorary membership including the Burma Medical Association, the Societe de Pathologie Exotique (Paris), the Societe Belge de Medecine Tropicale, the Brazilian Society of Tropical Medicine and the Canadian Society of Tropical Medicine and International Health. Awards he received included the Katherine Bishop Harman Prize of the British Medical Association, the Gold Medal of the University of Pernambuco and the Cullen Prize of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. He was appointed CMG in 1978 and OBE in 1989.
Woodruff was Honorary Secretary (1957-71) and President (1973-75) of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and President of the Medical Society of London (1975-76). He had a strong interest in history both medical and non-medical and wrote on his interpretation of accounts of Charles Darwin's illness eschewing the notion that Darwin had contracted Chagas' disease during his visit to South America. He served as President of the Historical Section of the Royal Society of Medicine (1977-79).
Woodruff was convinced of the need to maintain the Hospital for Tropical Diseases as a centre for patient care, teaching and clinical research and that its survival depended on the identity and integrity of the hospital and close contact between clinical and laboratory departments. This struggle for survival still continues.
He was a skilled artist, producing wood-engravings, examples of which decorated his Christmas cards. He was an astronomer who not only could guide observers around the heavens but also grind the mirrors and build telescopes. He had represented his university at tennis as a student and returned to this sport in Sudan, winning the Veterans Doubles Tennis Championship there.
Loyalty was a virtue he exemplified. He had undertaken to help the medical school in the University of Juba in the south of Sudan and in September 1981 went there as Professor of Medicine with his wife, Helen, and two young colleagues from Britain. He told me that he would see the first group of students through to qualification.
Four or five years extended to 11. During these years the south of Sudan and Juba in particular have been beset by difficulties and dangers. Despite these he continued to practise and teach there and went on teaching when students and staff from Juba had been transferred to Khartoum because of the isolation of Juba by rebel activities.
At home Alan was a warm and welcoming host and was supported throughout his career by Helen. She continued to visit the Sudan as much as her health and her own commitments would permit.
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