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Green Templeton College | Oxford

WeatherallProfessor Sir David John Weatherall, Honorary Fellow of Green Templeton College, was appointed Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire for services to medicine on 16 June 2017. This well-deserved honour comes in recognition of a long career researching molecular genetics, haematology, pathology and clinical medicine.

David Weatherall qualified in medicine at the University of Liverpool receiving an Honours degree and the prize for the student of the year. He then had to serve two compulsory years in the Royal Army Medical Corp, the first year in the British Military Hospital in Singapore and the second year in a similar hospital in North Malaya. While in Singapore he came across the daughter of a sergeant in a Ghurka regiment who was profoundly anaemic and was only being kept alive on regular blood transfusion. After a considerable amount of work he discovered that this child was suffering from the inherited disorder thalassaemia which at that time was thought to be restricted to Mediterranean populations. It was later found that, together with sickle cell disease, thalassaemia was the commonest single gene disorder which occurs at a remarkably high frequency right across the tropical belt.

After completing his military service Weatherall spent the next five years working at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, USA, where, together with John Clegg who became his lifelong research colleague, he discovered the molecular basis for many forms of thalassaemia. Some of this work led to early clinical application. In particular it was applied by several groups for prenatal diagnosis in the middle trimester of pregnancy. By 1990 close on 14,000 prenatal diagnoses had been achieved in 20 different countries with an extremely low failure rate.

In 1965 Weatherall returned to Liverpool where he established a haematology unit and developed a research centre to continue his work on haemoglobin disorders. During this period he was asked by the World Health Organization to go on a long tour of South and Southeast Asia to examine the situation regarding thalassaemia, a trip which led to many partnerships with different developing countries over many years.

In 1974 he was appointed Nuffield Professor of Clinical Medicine at the University of Oxford together with a fellowship at Magdalen College. He was able to take several of the key members of his research group with him from Liverpool and to begin further studies on the world distribution of the thalassaemias and to prove without any doubt that the reason for their very high frequency was due to heterozygote protection against malaria. In 1979 he was appointed Honorary Director of the Medical Research Council Molecular Haematology Unit and in 1992 he was appointed Regius Professor of Medicine and later became an Honorary Fellow of Green Templeton College.

In 1988 he established the Institute of Molecular Medicine (later renamed the MRC Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine), the first of its kind in this country and probably anywhere. The objective was to put together several groups working on different molecular aspects of disease but also to produce a training environment where young medically trained doctors could learn the basis of molecular medicine and those with a PhD in the molecular field could receive training about its clinical applications. It remains a very active Institute with over 400 research workers or more.

Since his retirement in 2000 he has maintained an active research group in the Institute mainly working in combination with the developing countries, particularly Sri Lanka and parts of India, with several objectives including raising money to develop better treatment centres in these countries, to train medical staff either here or in their particular countries, and to continue a research programme particularly related to haemoglobin E thalassaemia which is one of the commonest forms of the disease throughout South and Southeast Asia.

Weatherall has achieved considerable recognition for his work over the years, two examples being the Royal Medal of the Royal Society and the Lasker Award of the USA, the top award for science in the USA and sometimes called American Nobel!

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