Emeritus Professor of Public Health

Born February 5, 1919;

Died October 10, 2016

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GORDON Stewart, who has died aged 97, was a medical scientist of global renown who helped to pioneer the use of penicillins during his time as a naval surgeon in the Second World War.

The Paisley-born expert in public health worked with Sir Alexander Fleming, whose discovery of the antibiotic was one of the world’s greatest medical advances, and carried out trials at the Royal Naval Medical School in England and the Combined Services Hospital in Sri Lanka.

The young lieutenant-surgeon, who served on escort duties for the Arctic Convoys, went on to forge a career at the forefront of knowledge in the field of controlling communicable diseases, notably enteritis, whooping cough and HIV/Aids, in epidemiology and in the study of pencillins.

Latterly his interest in immunisation led to him becoming a controversial commentator on the dangers of the whooping cough vaccine – a subject he was passionate about but which made him unconventional among the medical community yet greatly respected by the parents of damaged children.

Professor Stewart, a former head boy of Paisley Grammar School, graduated from Glasgow University with a BSc degree in 1939 and continued his studies after the outbreak of war, graduating MB ChB in 1942. But in his final year as a medical student he enrolled as a volunteer escort on an operation to evacuate children from the dangers of bombing in Britain, taking them by ship to North America. It was a traumatic experience for the youngsters, with separation from their parents often worse than the bombing, and he witnessed some harrowing times.

Then from 1943 he served as a surgeon-lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve on the sloop HMS Wild Goose, part of the 2nd Escort Group commanded by Captain F J Walker. The group was one of the most successful escorts

shadowing the merchant supply convoys on their hazardous Arctic journeys to Murmansk – a journey where the appalling sub-zero conditions were matched in ferocity by the constant harassment from Luftwaffe aircraft and enemy submarines.

In the face of such dangers, which ultimately saw the loss of 85 merchant vessels and 16 Royal Navy warships, the group memorably protected one convoy, over 12 days of constant attacks, without any sinkings. It also notched up a record-breaking six enemy kills during a single U boat hunt, three of them within 16 hours, an achievement that led to the end of attacks by the wolf packs, the German subs that had stalked the convoys in formation.

During his naval service Professor Stewart had also been introduced to and trained in the use of penicillin, a skill he was able to utilise in the war – a period that saw the antibiotic revolutionise treatment of infected wounds.

Demobbed in 1946, he became a senior resident at Aberdeen’s City Hospital, a research fellow at Liverpool University and then, from 1948 until 1952, senior registrar and tutor at the Wright-Fleming Institute St Mary’s Hospital, London where he worked with Sir Alexander Fleming.

He was appointed professor of pathology and bacteriology at Karachi University in 1952 before taking up posts as consultant pathologist to the South West Metropolitan Regional Hospital Board and head of laboratories at the Medical Research Council labs in Surrey. In 1963 he headed for America as professor of epidemiology and pathology at the University of North Carolina.

Having completed trials with domestic penicillins at the navy’s medical school in Somerset and the Combined Services Hospital, Trincomalee, Sri Lanka earlier in his career, he then wrote The Penicillin Group of Drugs, based on his research and published in 1965.

Three years later he became Watkins professor of epidemiology at Tulane University Medical Centre, New Orleans before returning to his roots at Glasgow University. From 1972 he was Mechan professor of public health there and a consultant in epidemiology and preventive medicine for the Glasgow Area Health Board.

By the time he retired in 1984 he was a fellow of both the Royal Colleges of Physicians and Pathology and of the Faculties of Public Health and Community Medicine, as well as a senior fellow of the United States’ National Science Foundation. His career had also taken him around the world, sharing his expertise and knowledge as a consultant and lecturer to a huge range of institutions.

They included The United States Federal Drug Authority; the World Health Organisation in Geneva, New Delhi and Alexandria and with which he collaborated on the investigation of the epidemiology and transmission of HIV/AIDS; and UNICEF in Pakistan and national health authorities across Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the Americas. In addition he worked with universities in America and the UK, including Yale, Harvard, Oxford and Edinburgh, and with research organisations including the Pasteur Institute in Paris.

Internationally, he was also a medical adviser and expert witness. His opinions were often sought by British and foreign television broadcasters and he wrote countless scientific articles, editorials and reviews, contributing more than 150 pieces to The Lancet, the British Medical Journal and Nature.

One of his articles, still widely quoted today, examined the whooping cough vaccine, its efficacy and side effects. In it he said he had supported the use of the vaccine, with little hesitation, for about 20 years until 1972. He gave it to each of his four children but admitted he would not dream of doing so again because it was clear to him that not only was the vaccine incompletely protective but also that the side effects which he thought to be temporary were dangerous and unpredictably so.

He had no doubt that hundreds, possibly thousands, of well babies in the UK had suffered irreparable brain damage needlessly and that their lives and those of their parents were wrecked in consequence. He argued then that the vaccine should be discontinued.

This particular interest led to him being involved, for many years, in follow-up studies of children who had been damaged and in supporting them and their families.

“He was like a godfather to all our children,” said Olivia Price, chair of the Vaccine Victim Support Group. “His work was my bible and without him the Vaccine Damage Payments Act would not have taken off. He was a very loving person, dedicated and very considerate. He cared for the children and was not frightened to stand up and say what he thought.”

He is survived by his second wife Neena and his four children from his first marriage.

ALISON SHAW