Page last updated at 00:09 GMT, Monday, 31 January 2005

Experts Examined - Sir Richard Doll

Image of Sir Richard
"It's been a rewarding life"
In a series where we talk to leading health experts, the BBC News website meets Sir Richard Doll.

He is the man who first confirmed the link between smoking and lung cancer.

At the age of 92, Sir Richard is recognised as one of the UK's most eminent scientists, with more than 50 years service in medicine.

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

I really was only interested in mathematics and I wanted to be a mathematician.

Richard Burton
Not the actor mind you! The man who lived in the 19th Century who was the first man to go into Mecca during the religious period.

But there was very little one could do with a degree in mathematics in those days.

My father was a doctor and wanted me to do medicine, so I agreed.

I didn't mind. As soon as I started medicine I got totally absorbed in that. It's a fascinating subject.

What first got you interested in what you do now?

When I qualified from medicine I was looking for ways to use mathematical analysis in medicine.

Image of world war one
All Quiet on the Western Front
It portrayed the reality of the first world war horrors so strongly that it made one very concerned not to have any more wars.

Relatively speaking, I was always more interested in prevention than in therapy.

I had this opportunity to study lung cancer and have been ever since. That got me into epidemiology.

The thing about lung cancer was the mortality was increasing at such a very, very rapid rate.

At the beginning of the century it had been a rare disease and between the 1920s and 50s the mortality of it had increased more than 20 times. So something was happening.

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

Unfortunately, I have to say that diet is still a major challenge.

My wife
The girl I married - she changed my life completely. In the best way.

We know a lot about diet in relation to heart disease, but in relation to cancer it's still very confused.

I feel I know less about it now than I did 20 years ago.

The other thing I would really like to get straight is whether we can prevent old people falling and having fractures by giving them some more vitamin D.

What worries keep you awake at night?

Leaving aside political issues like the stupid folly of going to war in Iraq, global warming is the most important and worrying issue scientifically.

Company and laughter
Childish things make me laugh.

I can't over-emphasise the importance of that.

We really aren't doing enough to control it.

It's CO2. It's burning fossil fuels. No question about that.

What do you regret?

I do regret two things, but they are rather minor and personal.

When I used to study the treatment of gastric ulcer, back in the 1950s, we did not know what caused gastric and duodenal ulcers.

Image of parliament
Government interference
Things such as how you look after your children...the prohibition of smacking.

There was a patent medicine which we refused to study because the manufacturers were so aggressive.

Unfortunately, they did have something in that damn drug which might have helped us in discovering the cause of gastric ulcer.

So I do regret not having studied this beastly proprietary medicine.

The other thing was that I never resigned from the Medical Research Council when they changed its statute during the 1970s and made civil servants members from various government departments.

I think that caused serious damage to the scientific integrity of the MRC in this country.

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

I would have been an ordinary consultant.

I'm extremely happy I took the route I did.

I'm sure I have them, but I can't say.

I've had a fascinating life. I've been able to make a number of what I think are worthwhile contributions.

Not only to smoking, but contraceptives and ionising radiation. It's been a rewarding life.

Born 1912 in Hampton, England
1937: Graduated from St Thomas' Hospital Medical School in London
1939-45: Served in the Royal Army Medical Corps
1946: Started work at the Medical Research Council
1951: Co-authored a paper suggesting smoking causes lung cancer
1954: Co-authored a paper confirming the link between smoking and lung cancer
1956: Awarded an OBE
1961: Appointed director of the MRC Statistical Research Unit
1969: Appointed Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford University
1970-71: Served as vice-president of the Royal Society
1971: Received a knighthood
1996: Made a Companion of Honour for services of national importance

Timeline: Smoking and disease
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