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George Dick (1914 - 1997):
Physician and virologist

George Williamson Auchinvole Dick was born in Glasgow and educated at the Royal High School, Edinburgh and Edinburgh University, where he graduated MB, ChB in 1938 and BSc (pathology; first class honours) in 1939. He took up a post as assistant pathologist at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary in 1939, but left to serve in the Royal Army Medical Corps, spending this period in service in east Africa and Italian Somaliland, where he was in charge of pathological services. At war's end he was lieutenant-colonel in charge of a medical division; he remained in Africa, serving in the Colonial Medical Service until 1951, based in the Rockefeller Foundation Yellow Fever Laboratories in Entebbe, Uganda, though he also during this time was Rockefeller Foundation Fellow, Rockefeller Institute, New York, and Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, 1947-48; and Research Fellow, School of Hygiene and Public Health, Johns Hopkins University 1949-50. A lot of his work focused on the natural history of yellow fever, and in the process of these studies he isolated a number of previously unknown viruses, mostly through the inoculation of mice, then a common methodology.

He obtained a Master's degree in public health in 1949, and in the same year, became MD of Edinburgh University, winning a gold medal. He returned to the United Kingdom in 1951 to take up a post at the Medical Research Council, where he continued his work on tropical virology, until 1954.

In 1955, he was appointed to the Chair of Microbiology at Queen's University, Belfast. His work there was considerable, including research into poliomyelitis, whooping cough, smallpox, multiple sclerosis, measles, and panencephalitis, a postinfectious neurologic complication of measles. But it was especially for his work on poliomyelitis and smallpox that Dick became internationally as well as nationally renowned.

In the 1950s, smallpox, a feared disease, had nevertheless become very rare; however, the United Kingdom still had a policy of mass child vaccination, which Dick argued, after witnessing the death of a child following smallpox vaccination, was killing more children than would have contracted the disease otherwise. At a meeting of the British Medical Association in 1962, Dick spoke out trenchantly against this policy, which was still being defended by the Minister of Health. In 1971 the Secretary of State for Social Services adopted the advice of the special committee he had appointed, which had taken evidence from Dick. The mass-vaccination project was halted. The disease became extinct in the United Kingdom (and throughout the world, according to research by the World Health Organisation).

Dick's work on poliomyelitis began in the wake of the Salk vaccine in the early 1950s. Salk's vaccine was a "dead" vaccine, one whose organisms, intended to produce antibodies in the human body, have been killed. There were hopes that a "live" vaccine, able to be more easily administered, could be developed. Dick, saw the dangers in this: that the still-live attenuated virus might revert to its virulent form, so that the supposed preventive inoculation might actually serve to spread the disease. In 1956 Dick had tried out a new kind of live vaccine on his four-year-old daughter. But by 1958, after experiments on 200 volunteers, he had come to the conclusion that the live poliomyelitis vaccines then available were not suitable for use on a large scale, because of this risk of spreading infection. On this ground, in 1962 he attacked government backing for a change to the oral Sabin live vaccine in place of the Salk vaccine.

Another polio scare in the late 1950s involved a boy who contracted polio after being bitten on the lip by a budgerigar. Dick tried to inoculate four such birds with the polio virus, but was unsuccessful. He was unsuccessful, and concluded that, though a rare event, infection had in fact occurred naturally in the first bird. On another occasion he analysed a new vaccine against multiple sclerosis, imported from the USSR. He was able to demonstrate that this contained the rabies virus.

Dick also worked successfully on a combined vaccination that could give immunity for children to diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus and poliomyelitis through two injections, one before the age of 12 months and the next at 18 months. Besides his copious work in virology and immunology, he was also widely acknowledged as a gifted teacher, with special interest in medical education.

His principal legacy to Queen's University as an institution, and to Northern Ireland medicine and healthcare, was probably his leading role in the establishment of a Virus Reference Laboratory in the Department of Microbiology in 1957. At this date, virology was still at the "research" stage of diagnosis, not yet the "routine" stage of diagnosis of all clinical diseases thought to be of viral origin. Dick, together with Dr David Dane, set out clear and comprehensive aims of the Virus Reference Laboratory. These included: investigating outbreaks and epidemics of viral diseases; defining the frequency and importance of known virus diseases (in humans) by serological surveys and epidemiological studies; and assisting clinicians and public health workers in the investigation of diseases though to be of viral origin. These wide-ranging aims required new premises, for which Dick campaigned. Funding was obtained from the National Fund for Poliomyelitis Research, Queen's University and the Northern Ireland Hospitals Authority. A new purpose-built Microbiology Building, situated at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast, was designed by Sir Hugh Casson and commenced function in 1965. The Virus Research Laboratory continued to expand, with the introduction of more and more tests and the opening of its facilities to all hospitals and medical practitioners in Northern Ireland. In recognition of this, the Laboratory was renamed the Regional Virus Laboratory in 1981.

In 1965, he left Queen's University to become Director of the Bland-Sutton Institute and School of Pathology and Bland-Sutton Professor of Pathology, Middlesex Hospital Medical School, London University, in 1966. His activities here were more administrative than research-based; planning new laboratories and obtaining the money to fund them, appointing new staff and encouraged the development of undergraduate and postgraduate students as well as the technical staff. He had some time for research, mainly into Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), and the Marburg virus, a highly-virulent virus of African origin, related to the Ebola virus. He was called as an expert witness in several cases in the UK and Australia of CJD sufferers who had received growth hormone treatment. From 1973 until his retirement in 1981 he was postgraduate dean for the South West Thames Regional Health Authority, Professor of Pathology at the University of London and Honorary Lecturer and Consultant at the Institute of Child Health, with its connections to Great Ormond Street Hospital.

George Dick received numerous awards, including twice being recipient of the Singapore Gold Medal of the University of Edinburgh (1952 and 1959), and was an Outstanding Alumnus in Public Health, and later Hero of Public Health, Johns Hopkins University. His long list of publications covered, as well as numerous papers on specific diseases, several books: on immunisation, on the immunology of infectious diseases, and a popular publication for the tourist, Health on Holiday.

Born: 14 August 1914
Died: 3 July 1997
Richard Froggatt

Wesley McCann