Obituary: Professor D. A. Heath

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The Independent Online
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.