Obituary: Dr Susan Wood

Michael D. Rawlins
Monday 12 October 1998 23:02

THERE ARE millions of people, both in Britain and across the world, who will never have heard of Susan Wood yet who owe her a great debt for promoting the safety of medicines.

At the time a new drug reaches the market the manufacturer's claims for its effectiveness will have been closely scrutinised, and confirmed, by the Department of Health's Medicines Control Agency (MCA) and the Committee on Safety of Medicines (CSM), to which Sue Wood was Principal Assessor from 1988.

Yet despite extensive (and expensive) pre-marketing research any assessment of its safety can only be provisional and it is only during wider use, in routine clinical practice, that its true safety profile can emerge. The MCA and the CSM have a critical responsibility for ensuring that the safety of all marketed medicines is appropriately monitored; and that health professionals are given the necessary information to optimise their use. For the last 13 years of her life this was Sue Wood's world.

She was born Susan Ryan in Swaziland in 1952, and initially studied pharmacology at King's College London, obtaining a first class honours degree in 1973. She immediately went on to St Bartholomew's Hospital Medical College and qualified as a physician in 1977. After gaining further experience in clinical medicine she moved to the Royal Postgraduate Medical School where she undertook research in endocrinology and published extensively in the field.

Then, in 1983, she joined the Medicines Division of the Department of Health as a Senior Medical Officer. Initially she was involved in assessing applications for new drugs, but it was not long before she moved to what was then known as the Adverse Drug Reactions Section. When the Department of Health's Medicines Division was re-established as the MCA in 1988 Wood assumed charge of monitoring the safety of marketed medicines - pharmacovigilance. In 1994 her responsibilities within the agency itself increased further, and she became the first Director of its Post-Licensing Division.

Her first action in assuming responsibility for pharmacovigilance at the MCA was to overhaul procedures for identifying and handling tougher drug safety issues. At this distance in time it seems extraordinary that, in the mid-1980s, reports of adverse drug reactions to the MCA and CSM (which now amount to between 18,000 and 20,000 per year) were maintained on a social security computer in Reading that normally produced Giro cheques; that it was only available for drug safety work on a Thursday afternoon; and that any request for information had to be produced, in writing, several days beforehand.

Wood not only realised the hopelessness of such an arrangement, but proceeded to cajole senior officials in the Department of Health and the Treasury to provide the necessary (and substantial) resources for a new, independent facility. She then led the team that put in place the internationally recognised computer system (Adroit) for handling adverse reaction reports.

Not content with that she was then instrumental in developing a radical new medical terminology - Aegis - that enabled clinical information to be reliably recorded in electronic format. This was subsequently made available internationally - as Meddra - and has become accepted world-wide by drug regulatory authorities and the pharmaceutical industry. At the same time Wood recruited an increasing number of highly talented individuals, with a variety of skills, to help in her pursuit of safer medicines. They returned her trust and commitment with a loyalty that was no less than hers.

Wood's influence grew steadily over the years and she forged effective links most notably across Europe and North America. She was an active contributor to the Council for International Organisations of Medical Sciences, the European Pharmacovigilance Research Group, and the International Conference on Harmonisation. With the advent of the new European Union system of drug regulation, in 1995, she became one of the two UK representatives on the Committee for Proprietary Medicinal Products and chaired its Pharmacovigilance Working Party. In this latter capacity her influence on matters relating to drug safety extended right across the EU.

Wood was the supreme public servant. She had a penetrating mind with an eye for both broad strategy and detail. Her energy, vitality, vibrant personality and capacity for work were legendary. She was fiercely loyal to her staff, MCA and the CSM. And as the going got tougher her loyalty got fiercer.

She was intimately involved in all the drug safety issues that have had close media attention over the past 10 years. These (to name but a few) included vaccines, the anti- depressant triazolam (Halcion), hormone replacement therapy, vitamin K (in babies) and oral contraceptives. In dealing with each and all of these her over-riding concerns (as she never stopped reminding us) were for the public health, and the best interests of patients.

Sue Wood drove herself, and those around her, with frightening energy. She loathed loose thinking, pomposity and humbug. Yet at the same time she was extraordinarily generous and kind; nothing was too much trouble; no request was ever ignored or letter unanswered; and no one's professional or personal problems were too insignificant for her attention and sympathy. She is survived by her husband, John, also a physician.

Michael D. Rawlins

Susan Marion Ryan, pharmacologist and physician: born Hlatikulu, Swaziland 20 July 1952; married 1978 John Wood; died Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire 30 September 1998.

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