Statistician known for his pioneering research to monitor the safety of prescribed drugs

Born: January 3, 1917;

Died: November 12, 2018

PROFESSOR David Finney, who has died aged 101, was a statistician of international renown who helped set up the Agricultural Research Council Unit of Statistics for Scotland in Aberdeen University. When it moved to Edinburgh University in 1966 Professor Finney lead the department. He was an early advocate of international monitoring of new medicines and pioneered the development of monitoring prescribed drugs and their potential side effects.

His work encompassed many fields – one of his major contributions to scientific understanding was regarding thalidomide, the anti-morning sickness drug, in the 1960s. Professor Finney was on a sabbatical at Harvard at the time and was asked if he could provide statistical advice regarding the early detection of the problems experienced by pregnant women. On his return to the UK Professor Finney provided essential data to the Safety of Medicines Committee, set up by Sir Derrick Dunlop, to monitor the thalidomide patients. It was work with which Professor Finney would be involved for over 30 years.

As a result of the thalidomide scare, Professor Finney campaigned for greater supervision in the prescribing of drugs. In 1965 he wrote an influential paper, The Design and Logic of a Monitor of Drug Use, which detailed with specific clarity how a system of a drugs safety should operate. It established a system in Britain and for the World Health Organisation.

“We have neither the knowledge nor the administrative power to achieve perfection,” he wrote “but to do nothing will be unpardonable.”

Central to Professor Finney’s career was public duty and the conviction that statistical methods, correctly interpreted, were valuable tools in the service of society. He applied his scientific knowledge to using statistics to enhance the understanding of real-life issues.

David John Finney, who has died aged 101, was born in Warrington. He attended Manchester Grammar School and won a scholarship to Clare College, Cambridge, to read mathematics. He was awarded a postgraduate scholarship for statistical work in agriculture at the Galton Laboratory University of London.

In 1939 he was appointed an assistant at Rothamsted Experimental Station to increase farming productivity during the war. He contacted typhoid and during his recovery he developed a method of analysing the effect drugs have on a body.

In 1945, he was appointed the first holder of lecturer in design analysis of scientific experiments at Oxford University. In 1952 he was a consultant in New Delhi to the United Nations on food consumption and the following year he took up his appointment at Aberdeen University as reader in statistics also establishing a unit of statistics. This innovative scheme provided a service for Scotland modelled on what he had worked on at Rothamsted.

In 1966 the Agricultural Research Council moved the department to Edinburgh University, where Professor Finney became the first professor of statistics and director of the unit of statistics. They were appointments he filled with great integrity, flair and dignity, retiring in 1984 a much admired and respected figure.

During the 1960s he became involved in the field of drug safety, providing important and informed advice both throughout the UK and to the World Health Organisation. At the latter he set up an international system of pharmacovigilance - the practice of monitoring the effects of medical drugs after they have been licensed for use. Throughout his carrier Professor Finney was a keen advocate of collating international case reports that could alert the medical profession to any scientific problems. He chaired the Flowers Committee from 1970-74, which determined how best to develop technology in British universities and research councils.

In his retirement Professor Finney remained a powerful force in drug safety research. He held, amongst other posts, a consultancy to both the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation and the United Nations World Health Organisation.

Margaret Shorter, a member of Professor Finney’s department at Edinburgh University, told The Herald, “David was passionate in applying statistics to practical problems in science.

"He was an inspiring person to work for – he could spot and analyse patterns in data and then make unbiased comparisons from purely scientific information. His work was not confined to medical statistics - his research into crop and animal monitoring proved of immense benefit in the post-war years and more recently in India and Manila.

“In the department he was always respectfully referred to as DJF. It was only in later years I called him David. He was a thoroughly decent and kind man.”

The Queen sent her congratulations last year on Professor Finney's 100th birthday and there were three celebrations which he attended. Apart from a family party, there was a reception given by former colleagues and another reception at the Royal Society of Edinburgh. There was also a moving tribute in his church magazine (Christ Church, Morningside) where he had been a regular attender for many years.

Professor Finney widely published in academic periodicals and was awarded many honorary degrees from universities. He was made a CBE in 1978 and was a fellow of the Royal Statistical Society, the Royal Society and of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He was devoted to his family and listed his recreations in Who’s Who as, “Travel (active). Music (passive) and the 3 Rs.”

Professor Finney married Mary Connolly in 1950. She died in 2006 and he is survived by their two daughters and a son.