David Barker, 1938-2013

A researcher who revolutionised the study of fetal development and its long-term impact on health has died

September 19, 2013

David Barker was born in London on 29 June 1938 and educated at Oundle School, Northamptonshire, where he spent much of his time looking for beetles and analysing them in the lab. He also embarked on a plant-collecting expedition to Iceland for the Natural History Museum before going on to study medicine at Guy’s Hospital in London (1959-62).

After starting at the University of Birmingham as a research fellow in social medicine (1963-66) and then lecturer in medicine (1966-69), Professor Barker won a grant from the Medical Research Council to work as a lecturer in preventive medicine at Makerere University in Uganda (1969-72), until Idi Amin’s vicious presidency led to an exodus of all Westerners from the country.

He then moved to the University of Southampton, where he spent the rest of his career, initially as both a senior lecturer in clinical epidemiology and a consultant physician at the Royal South Hants Hospital (1972-79).

In 1979, Professor Barker helped to establish what is now the Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit – where he served as director from 1984 to 2003 – and was promoted to professor of clinical epidemiology. It was here that he pioneered research into the developmental origins of health and disease.

Working with medical colleagues across the world, as well as with a historian who scrutinised old Hertfordshire birth records, he was able to demonstrate close correlations between areas with high levels of infant mortality and the number of people with chronic adult diseases.

Although Professor Barker retired as director of the unit in 2003, he continued to work with it while spearheading a Southampton initiative designed to address the practical implications of his research for the nutrition and health of infants and pregnant women. He also presented his core arguments to a more general audience in a 2011 BBC Horizon documentary, The Nine Months That Made You.

Caroline Fall, professor of international paediatric epidemiology at Southampton, said “it was an inspiration to work with David”. Although his central insight was initially “treated with disbelief”, he “pursued it with tenacity and ingenuity, which showed us what epidemiology could do, and the glory of discovery. He teamed up with other scientific disciplines, which meant we had to learn new languages but strengthened our evidence…Few people are privileged to get so much from their research.”

Professor Barker died suddenly on August and is survived by his wife Jan, five children from an earlier marriage, three stepchildren and 13 grandchildren.


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