My interest in Professor Sir Richard Doll is to some extent a personal one. I was aware of his existence before I lived in Oxford; my father had told me about him and his research that showed the link between smoking and lung cancer. He sometimes recounts the story of the time there was a fire on one of the wards at the Radcliffe Infirmary (where my father was working) and Doll was quick to leave his office to offer physical help. I too, when living in the Radcliffe Infirmary nurse accommodation many years later, would sometimes be aware of his lonely figure in the canteen some evenings.
He died some years ago now. I saw the book and thought it would be interesting to read. First impressions? It is dense. It took me a few attempts to really get to grips and feel like I was connecting with the contents. I can’t honestly say I read the entire book from beginning to end!
It’s density is not, however, something that invalidates it’s interest. Packed with biographical detail of Doll’s early life, family life and academic life it comes alive with anecdotes such as the time his colleague Hill was at a cocktail party and another doctor approached him as the guy who wanted to stop them smoking. Not at all, was the reply, “I’m interested if you go on smoking to see how you die. I’m interested if you stop because I want to see how you die…. I will score up your death anyway and it will be very useful to me.” No wonder, then, Hill and Doll got a bit of a name for themselves for appearing callous. Perhaps they needed to be given that they were coming up against such a giant in the tobacco industry.
However, this callousness doesn’t really resonate with the stories I had come to hear about the man and the penultimate chapter, in which we hear of his wife’s death, shows more of that softer side of him.
Certainly if you have more than a passing interest in Doll, this is a great read. Even if you don’t, learning more about a man who undoubtedly had such a profound effect on the preventative measures that we now take for granted regarding smoking, is definitely worth the read.