Dr Will Pickles and epidemiology in an Aysgarth practice

Since the Covid-19 pandemic started, everyone has become familiar with the word epidemiology. It is the branch of medical science that studies the distribution of disease in human populations and the factors determining it, chiefly by the use of statistics.

Saturday, 24th October 2020, 4:45 pm
Aysgarth Falls

Back in May I talked about Dr John Snow, a Victorian surgeon and general practitioner in London’s Soho district who is regarded as one of the founders of epidemiology.

Last weekend I went walking around Aysgarth in Wensleydale, where Dr Will Pickles, another of the great pioneers of epidemiology, practiced from for over 50 years, from 1913.

Not only was he the first president of the Royal College of General Practitioners, but he performed some of the most important epidemiological research into infectious diseases within his practice around Wensleydale.

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Will Pickles was born into a medical family in Leeds in 1885 and studied medicine at Leeds University. He first visited Aysgarth in 1912, when he worked as a locum to a family doctor. To save money to buy in to the practice he served as a ship’s surgeon on a voyage to Calcutta. When he returned he had enough money to buy his share.

Apart from war service as a surgeon-lieutenant during World War One, he served as a family doctor in Aysgarth until his retirement in 1964.

In those early days of family medicine the natural history of many diseases was not known. Will Pickles changed that by his detective work and meticulous statistical analysis.

An outbreak of ‘catarrhal jaundice‘ (Hepatitis A) in 1929 affected 250 people of 5,700. By tracing back, Pickles identified the source as a young girl he had seen after a home visit on the morning of a village fete. He published his study to acclaim in the British Medical Journal.

He did similar ground-breaking research in measles, dysentery, Bornholm disease, chickenpox and pneumonia.

In 1939 he published ‘Epidemiology in a Country Practice’ - a landmark book recommended for medical researchers. Honorary degrees followed, as did lecture tours of the USA, South Africa and Australia.

An inspirational family doctor and a pioneer of epidemiology.