Kenneth David MacRae

BMJ 2002; 324 doi: (Published 27 April 2002) Cite this as: BMJ 2002;324:1041

An iconoclastic clear thinker in epidemiology and medical research

Ken MacRae was one of the most exciting medical statisticians and philosophers of his generation. He was a gifted teacher, combining an ability to put across complex concepts with hilarious style, reducing his audience to helpless mirth. He also salvaged countless MD theses. Many distinguished consultants throughout the country owe their higher degrees to his intervention.

He was the scourge of the epidemiological establishment, challenging the analysis and interpretation of data on oral contraceptive risk and pertussis vaccine to the fury of those holding entrenched views.

Ken came from a family of crofters and was the first in his family to go to university. A natural mathematician, he read psychology and mathematics at Aberdeen before undertaking postgraduate studies in mathematical statistics and biometry. He went on to do a PhD on sequential statistical decision making, awarded in 1970. He was appointed lecturer in medical statistics at Queen's University, Belfast. At university he was an enthusiastic member of the Royal Air Force flying corps, throwing fast jets around the sky with abandon.

In 1984 he was appointed senior lecturer and subsequently reader in medical statistics at Charing Cross Hospital Medical School. His personal courtesy combined with excoriating wit won him many friends and left his opponents in academic skirmishes in disarray.

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His early work looked at relative risk of thrombosis with the oral contraceptive pill, causing enormous controversy at the time as he attacked the received wisdom, a theme to which he returned with his risk analysis of the third generation pill. He analysed multicentre clinical trials particularly in relation to prostate and breast cancer. He was appointed professor of medical statistics at the University of Surrey, and concentrated on forensic statistics for major medicolegal cases, specifically pertussis vaccine in the United Kingdom, and, controversially, tobacco litigation in the United States. His broad teaching experience allowed him to put across complex concepts to lawyers, judges, and juries with charm and the appropriate simplicity. His forensic skills and catholic knowledge were well employed on the BMJ “hanging committee,” which decides whether or not to publish submitted papers.

The Calvinism of Ken's early upbringing did not suit and there was a strong extrovert side to his character. He had a love of music, particularly the later Beethoven and Shostakovitch string quartets, to whose complexity of sound and emotion he was particularly drawn. He was gregarious, delighting in conversation, good food, wine, and, of course, malt whisky.

[Jeremy Wright]


  • Predeceased by a son, he leaves a wife, Jane; and two sons.

    Kenneth MacRae, professor of medical statistics University of Surrey; b 1942; PhD, FIS; died suddenly from myocardial ischaemia on around 6 April 2002. He had had diabetes for some years.Embedded Image

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