In the news

May 21, 1999

When others were losing their heads over mad cow disease, John Pattison, new director of research and development at the Department of Health, for the most part kept his customary calm.

As chair of the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee - a role for which he was knighted last year - he insisted on decisions being made on the basis of science.

He sparked criticism from people worried about the slaughter of cattle after warning that half a million deaths from the human form of BSE were possible - a figure he later revised down to around 200. But he insisted:

"The principles of what we did have been correct. The enforcement left something to be desired."

He calmly handled another controversial issue when a committee he chaired dismissed fears that the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine for children was linked to autism.

Educated at Barnard Castle School and University College, Oxford, he carved out a distinguished career as a virologist at the London Hospital Medical College and St Bartholomew's Hospital Medical School, becoming professor of medical microbiology at King's College Hospital Medical School in 1977.

In 1984, he moved to University College London as professor of medical microbiology. There, as dean of the medical school from 1990, and later vice-provost of the college, he has helped oversee amalgamation of the postgraduate institutes in the London and Royal Free hospitals to create one of the largest sites for biomedical sciences in Europe.

Now 56, he is praised for his "gentle manner", careful reflection and ability to bring people together. But he is also described as a person who favours the company of his family. His main passion is windsurfing and every year he takes off for a month to ride the waves in Barbados.

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