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Last Updated: Monday, 13 June, 2005, 00:16 GMT 01:16 UK
Experts Examined - Sir Richard Peto
Image of Prof Peto
In a series where we talk to leading health experts, the BBC News website meets Professor of Medical Statistics and Epidemiology, Professor Sir Richard Peto.

Knighted for his services to epidemiology and cancer prevention, Sir Richard has proved the worth of many medical treatments, including tamoxifen for breast cancer.

At school, what did you want to be when you grew up?

When I was a kid I wanted to be an astronomer and then I wanted to be a farmer.

The Seventh Seal, starring Ingmar Bergman

My first paid work in the holidays was making hay in the sunshine.

Later, I got into science and was delighted by it.

My mother, however, was delighted by Shakespeare and poetry and could not work out where all this science business came from.

What first got you interested in what you do now?

I fell into it by accident really. It was the 1960s and I was not really sure if I wanted to work at all.

Image of Nelson Mandela
Charles Darwin, Nelson Mandela and Primo Levi
People who manage to stay rational in very difficult times

Hippies did not understand a lot about the real work.

I went off to university doing science, half dropped out like some people do and then half dropped in again with statistics.

I began working with Sir Richard Doll at the Medical Research Council Statistical Research Unit in London.

Then I found I began to love it more and more.

When you start getting results it's addictive.

You suddenly realise that results on paper can save lives in the real world.

What are the major issues or challenges in your field of interest at the moment?

For epidemiology as a whole it has been a ridiculous amount of restriction on the use of medical records.

Family and friends
They keep me at least half sane

Much of the constraint on research is done in the name of ethics but it is unethical.

It's all about using medical records for a purpose that they were not originally obtained. So what? It's done good not harm.

This kind of work saves lives. It gives us clear answers.

What worries keep you awake at night?

Running out of sleeping pills.

What do you regret?

I would say delays in publication of work that can make a big difference to people's lives.

My compulsive inefficiency
I know what I want to do or write but it takes me ages to get it perfect

Very often, we get results and we spend ages trying to get them perfect and they come out years too late.

That does mean had they been available earlier, they would have saved lives earlier. That is difficult to accept.

What would you have done if you hadn't gone in to this?

I really don't know.

Intellectual impostors
People seen as philosophers, but who have nothing of real substance to say

I love what I and my colleagues do - work to reduce the problem of premature death and disease.

I have just turned 62 and I would very much like to live another 20 years of good life.

The key is to take the big causes - smoking, blood pressure and cholesterol - seriously.

Born 1943
1965: BA in Natural Sciences from the University of Cambridge
1967: Earned an MSc in Statistics from the University of London, and appointed Research Officer at the MRC Statistical Research Unit, London
1974: MA, University of Cambridge
1985: Co-director of the Clinical Trial Service Unit and Epidemiological Studies Unit, Oxford
1992: Became Professor of Medical Statistics and Epidemiology at Oxford University
1999: Knighted


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