Obituary: Professor William Taylor
Friday 03 June 1994
OCCUPATIONAL medicine, despite being a relatively small speciality (concerned with the effects of health on work, and work on health), has always been enriched by outstanding individuals. William Taylor was one such person who, through his work in Scotland, contributed to the international standing of that speciality. He was an academic researcher of the highest calibre and an inspiring teacher.
Born in Lerwick, Shetland, in 1911, Bill Taylor was educated at Kirkwall, on Orkney, and Wick, across the water in Caithness, and then went to Edinburgh University where he graduated in Chemistry in 1934 proceeding to PhD in 1937. This led to a career in industry at the explosives division of ICI at Ardeer in Ayrshire. Subsequently he decided to enter medicine and graduated from Edinburgh University in 1950. After hospital posts in Edinburgh and Dumfries he entered rural general practice in Caithness, he continued to ask questions and seek answers, recognising, as other general practitioners have, the opportunities afforded by a rural practice.
In the Department of Community and Occupational Medicine at Dundee, Professor Alex Mair built up an interest in occupational medicine as well as public health. He persuaded jute industries, at a time when Dundee was recognised for jute, jam and journalism, to fund a university lectureship in occupational medicine in 1960. Taylor, with his commitment to research, his experience in clinical medicine and industry, was the obvious choice for this new and challenging post. Despite initial problems of accommodation, with caravans used as temporary offices, and lack of funding for this rather unusual (because it was new in Scotland) academic development, Dundee became recognised as a centre of excellence in occupational health. Over the years additional staff were appointed, an occupational hygiene unit was established and research programmes got under way. Courses for doctors and nurses received national and international recognition and there was a commitment to both formal postgraduate training and continuing professional development. If anyone ever exemplified the statement 'there are no such things as problems, just challenges', it was Taylor.
At the start of his time in Dundee Taylor's research interests centred around the jute industry: all aspects of the working conditions, from dust to dyes, and from mineral oil to noise, were the subject of investigation. He is best remembered for his pioneering work on the measurement of noise-induced deafness and its effects on workers. Unlike many researchers, his commitment did not end with the identification of the problem. He was equally enthusiastic in seeking to influence policy and his work contributed substantially to the development of the present industrial injuries legislation. Not surprisingly, given his industrial background, Taylor took a particular interest in toxicology, and one particular area of study was the effect of mercury on farming, seed-dressing and dentistry.
Following on from his research on noise, there was a natural progression to the study of hand-held power tools and saws and the resulting known as Vibration White Finger or Raynaud's phenomenon. This area of study remained his main concern right up until his death, and he was a familiar figure in industry, forests, and many other places of work throughout the UK.
His contribution to occupational medicine was recognised by professional and academic bodies. In 1971 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh and the faculty of Occupational Medicine of the Royal College of Physicians of London in 1982. He gained the degree of MD in 1950 from Edinburgh University and was awarded a DSc in 1978.
He saw his retirement to Caithness in the far north of Scotland as a new opportunity: it gave him more time for research, writing, lecturing and travel. Despite living in a remote area, he continued international collaborative research in vibration and its related health problems. He published specialised papers and texts widely, and spoke at many international symposia. I met him just after his 80th birthday, when he recounted with joy the wonderful present he had been given of a mountain bike. He was still riding that bike the week of his death. Those who were taught by him or who worked with him will not forget the enthusiasm he had for his subject and the inspiration he was to those beginning a career in occupational health. Humour and anecdotes were just as much a part of Bill Taylor as was the serious science.
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