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25 February 2002updated 24 Sep 2015 12:31pm

Appreciation: Donald Gould

The New Statesman's first medical correspondent

By Colin Tudge

Donald Gould died this month at his Oxfordshire home two weeks after his 83rd birthday, surrounded by his huge and multi-talented family. As the New Statesman‘s first medical correspondent (1966-78), he was also Britain’s first true medical critic: the first to appraise both the content and the morality of medical science in the way that F R Leavis, say, discussed English literature. More broadly, if there is a modern genre of science criticism (and there is, although this is not always properly acknowledged), then Donald was one of its prime creators.

Donald was the son of a Reverend, but was always angry with God: he was working on “Letters to God” to the end of his life and I hope they’ll eventually arrive. He studied medicine at St Thomas’ Hospital (after Mill Hill) and served through the war as a surgeon-lieutenant in the RNVR; then lectured in physiology at the University of Hong Kong before becoming King Edward VII professor of physiology at the University of Malaya in Singapore. His research was published in the serious journals, but (as I am privileged to attest) nothing could compare with his rendition of “Any Old Iron” in Cantonese, with gestures.

He returned to London to lecture at Bart’s Hospital and, in 1963, began his second career as a writer. He became the first editor of World Medicine (where he gave me my first proper job, fresh out of university), and then (1966-71) the third editor of the still (fairly) new New Scientist. His editing style was terrifying. He leapt to life as deadlines loomed and presses were humming, relishing urgency with a touch of Laphroaig. Carefully worked edicts de haute en bas from Fellows of the Royal Society were binned. Literally. He introduced news to the New Scientist. The approach had its downside, but he, more than anyone, made the New Scientist modern.

He began his long stint on the NS while still editing the New Scientist. His work was accurate, stylish, funny, combative, poignant. In 1968: “That controversial Pill is about to face a new, frontal assault by massed forces of the British medical profession. The Pill is now a regular part of the diet of 11 million or more women throughout the world and, in the very nature of things, some of them have died.” He went on to welcome the US National Research Council’s initiative to “consider the implications of the enormous and often frightening strides being made in the life sciences . . . And for God’s sake (man’s sake, anyhow), why don’t we do the same thing here?” Or (June, 1970) on the promise, or threat, of prescribing the sex of babies: “This is the sort of prognostication which some of my more sober-sided colleagues in the world of science might call alarmist. Well, it does alarm me. Supposing the developments I have suggested had been achieved just half a century ago – by now I might be a fashionable lady novelist, or even a mother of 12. Though come to think of it, if even the powerful pills we already have available had been in circulation half a century ago, I wouldn’t have been born at all.”

Different context nowadays, but the same general issues apply: what science can really do for us, and what it can’t, and who is truly seeking to do good and who is on the make. There are other accomplished writers in medical science, but few match Donald’s passion and insight – and none matches his style.

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He had nine children: seven by his first marriage, and two by his second to Jennifer, who was with him for more than 30 years until the end. A grand life. A fine man.

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