Obituary: Professor D. A. Heath

D. A. Heath was the distinguished George Holt Professor of Pathology at Liverpool University for 25 years, from 1968 to 1993. During this time he stimulated research into many aspects of heart and lung disease, stretching from the Andes of South America to the intricacies of heart-lung transplantation.

Donald Heath was born in Henley-on-Thames in 1928 and educated at Henley Grammar School. He entered medical school at Sheffield University immediately after the Second World War. Although this was a period of austerity, he always spoke of his time at Sheffield with great affection. Even in those early days his at times acerbic academic character was firmly moulded. When a fellow undergraduate, discussing the whale meat which regularly appeared on the university menu, commented "This fish stinks", his only rejoinder was "Any fool knows a whale is a mammal."

Following graduation, Heath's chosen career was in cardiology and he was fortunate to be appointed in 1953 to the recently created Regional Cardiovascular Centre at the City General Hospital, now the Northern Hospital, in Sheffield. There, as a young man, he was faced with the responsibility of caring for patients who were often very ill. Most were blue, breathless and suffering from high blood pressure within their lungs. Some were infants and children with congenital heart disease while others were middle-aged men who had been miners or steelworkers. As a student Heath had been taught that diseases of the heart affect the lungs and vice versa; and that the channel through which this takes place is the pulmonary circulation. He was puzzled as to what were the changes in the pulmonary circulation which so profoundly influenced the clinical picture, treatment and prognosis of the patients. At the time, the medical profession as a whole was equally ignorant.

A Leverhulme Research Fellowship of the Royal College of Physicians allowed Heath the time to begin study of the pulmonary circulation. This was followed by a temporary lectureship in pathology which took him, in 1956, to the Department of Pathology at Birmingham University.

During his first year here he was awarded a Rockefeller Travelling Fellowship from the Medical Research Council, which enabled him to spend a year under the stimulating tuition of Dr Jesse Edwards at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, in the United States. The clinic was a leading international centre in the emerging field of heart surgery. It proved to be a decisive year. Heath never found his way back to cardiology. He stayed at Birmingham for 12 years, the last four as Reader in Pathology.

In 1968, he was appointed to the George Holt Chair of Pathology at Liverpool. He was to prove a staunch champion of his department and of the university. In his early days there he devoted much time and energy to the successful transfer of the pathology department from the university campus to the new Royal Liverpool Hospital, whilst accommodating the increasing requirements of faculty, university and NHS administration. In teaching, his fondness for prowling around the lecture theatre using the board pointer like some kind of medieval lance soon taught students there was no safety in the back row.

It is, however, in academic research that Heath made his international contribution to the field of pathology. He had an unshakeable belief in the fundamental importance of academic endeavour. When he came to Liverpool he was the author of some 100 papers and several books; The Human Pulmonary Circulation (1962), written with Professor Peter Harris, became a standard text. When Heath retired in 1993 this number had risen to over 300 papers and several more books. His interests continued to expand to include work on the carotid body and particularly the study of the biology of high altitude. He first visited the Peruvian Andes in 1965, with Peter Harris, his friend and colleague, as part of their study of the pulmonary circulation. These visits continued for the next 24 years, to both the Andes and the Himalayas.

Heath was unquestionably a dedicated academician. His last paper, "Travellers on a Hidden River", was accepted for publication on 13 January 1997. In November 1996 the book High Altitude Medicine and Pathology, on which he and I collaborated, received an award in the BMA Book Competition for 1996. Both gave Heath considerable pleasure, despite his declining health. His zest for fieldwork never abated, and during the summer of 1996 he was the driving force behind work undertaken in Bolivia.

An insight into Donald Heath's enthusiasms may be gained from the opening sentences of a contribution he made in 1993 to the medical journal Thorax:

The well-ordered life of a pathologist can be disrupted if he falls into the hands of adventurous clinicians. I was never meant by build or inclination to cavort in mountains at high altitude but my long association with Peter Harris determined otherwise.

It proved also to be a mutually stimulating and fruitful clinicopathological relationship which brought great distinction to both of them and their respective academic institutions.Donald Albert Heath, pathologist: born Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire 4 May 1928; George Holt Professor of Pathology, Liverpool University 1968-93; died Southport, Lancashire 10 February 1997.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR and Payroll Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This dynamic outsourced contact...

Recruitment Genius: Production & Quality Control Assistant

£19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity for a ...

Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor - Kettering - £32,000

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor with an established...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Generalist

£40 - 50k (DOE) + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a HR Manager / HR Genera...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor