Sir Richard Doll, the scientist who linked smoking to cancer, dies

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The Independent Online

In 1950, Sir Richard Doll, working with Professor Austin Bradford Hill, was the first leading authority to prove a link between smoking and lung cancer ­ and has been responsible as a result for saving millions of lives.

Sir Richard was a smoker himself when he began his first study in the late 1940s into the reasons for the sharp increase in lung cancer deaths over the previous 30 years. When he saw the results, he gave up the habit. Early results confirmed smokers were much more likely to die of lung cancer than non-smokers.

In 1951, he co-authored a paper first suggesting the link. Three years later, he co-authored another paper which confirmed it. Those papers are seen as among the most comprehensive warnings of the perils of smoking. In 1954, 80 per cent of British adults smoked. Half a century later, that figure is down to 26 per cent.

Sir Richard never preached to others to persuade them to give up the habit. "I don't mind in the least if someone in the room lights up a cigarette," he told the Journal of Addiction in 1990. "It's their decision and their life, not mine."

It was not until the 1954 paper, confirming the suspicions in the earlier paper, that people started to take notice. The research prompted a news conference called by the Minister of Health, Iain Macleod. Chain-smoking throughout, he said: "It must be regarded as established that there is a relationship between smoking and cancer of the lung."

Sir Richard received honorary degrees from 13 universities. He won countless awards, including the UN Award for Cancer Research in 1962.

He was appointed OBE in 1956, knighted in 1971 and made a Companion of Honour in 1996 for services of national importance.

William Richard Shaloe Doll was born in Hampton, south-west London, and educated at Westminster School. In 1969, he was appointed Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford University. In 1970-71 he served as president of the Royal Society.

Sir Richard continued working until this year. He demonstrated that all radiation was potentially harmful and that aspirin could protect against heart disease. He also found evidence to suggest that alcohol increases the risk of breast cancer.

John Hood, vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford, said: "Sir Richard's enormous contribution cannot be understated. His pioneering epidemiological work has led to the dramatic reduction in smoking rates in Britain over the past 50 years. This research has saved many millions of lives. But Sir Richard will also be remembered as an inspiration and mentor to generations of scientists."

Professor Sir Richard Peto, a close colleague for more than 30 years, said: "Richard Doll's work has prevented millions of premature deaths in the 20th century, and will prevent tens of millions of premature deaths in the present century. He was unique in medical history."

Professor Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the Medical Research Council, said Doll's work had done as much to save lives as the discovery of penicillin or the development of polio vaccine.

The breakthrough

Sir Richard Doll began to investigate whether tar on the roads was causing the increase in lung cancer noted at the beginning of the 20th century.

He and his colleagues interviewed 700 lung cancer patients to try to identify a common thread. "It was not long before it became clear that cigarette smoking may be to blame," Sir Richard said. "I gave up smoking two-thirds of the way through that study."

A large part of the proof in Sir Richard's 1954 study involved the questioning of 40,000 doctors about their smoking habits over three years. These answers were compared with the number of doctors who went on to develop lung cancer. A direct link was found.