Griffith Edwards

BMJ 2012; 345 doi: (Published 29 October 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e7234
  1. Michael Farrell, director, National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, University of New South Wales, Sydney NSW 2031, Australia,
  2. Wayne Hall, professor and National Health and Medical Research Council Australia fellow, deputy director (policy), University of Queensland Centre for Clinical Research, QLD, Australia
  1. Michael.Farrell{at}

Key contributor to the study and science of addiction

Griffith Edwards’s piercing brown eyes radiated warmth and mischief. He was an iconoclastic thinker and researcher who destroyed false idols during a long and successful career in medicine, psychiatry, and addiction research.

Edwards came to alcohol and addiction studies in its infancy and over 50 years contributed his inexhaustible energies towards building it as a scientific subject. He was born in India; his veterinary scientist father developed a vaccine for rinderpest (or cattle plague) and his maternal grandfather was a senior veterinary scientist. Both had been journal editors.

After schooling in Andover he went to Balliol College, Oxford, in 1947, initially to study mathematics before transferring in his second year to medicine. He did his clinical training at St Bartholomew’s Hospital. He had longstanding interests in philosophy and mathematics and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the work of David Hume and medical predecessors in the study of alcohol problems, such as Thomas Trotter, the Georgian British naval surgeon and alcohol essayist.

Building the discipline

Edwards arrived at the Maudsley Hospital committed to a career in psychiatry, one of the postwar generation of Maudsley trainees who built the discipline of 20th century British psychiatry, redefined the measurement and classification of mental disorders, and revolutionised the evaluation of psychiatric treatment.

He established an addiction research unit for the Medical Research Council in 1967, the first of its type in the UK, attracting many who became leading British researchers in addictions in a wide range of disciplines. His 1976 BMJ paper, “Alcohol dependence: provisional description of a clinical syndrome,”1 was the distillation of many years of research. This, and related work for the World Health Organization, led to the inclusion of the dependence syndrome as the core definition of addictive disorders in both the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and the International Classification of Diseases (ICD).

Edwards undertook one of the first randomised controlled trials on alcohol treatment in the UK, comparing inpatient and outpatient treatment for alcohol dependence.2 The failure to find any difference in outcome called into question the long held belief that alcohol dependence required extended inpatient treatment and intensive follow-up after discharge.

Addiction and public health

His interest in clinical problems was always embedded within a broad social perspective and a public health approach to prevention, treatment, and research on alcohol and other drugs. Edwards’s work with Kettil Bruun and others in the 1970s on Alcohol Control Policies in a Public Health Perspective, known as the purple book, outlined the scientific case for dealing with alcohol use in the whole population.3 A later book, Alcohol Policy and the Public Good, which was collaboratively produced by an international network of researchers and policy makers, proved a seminal work in national and international public health alcohol policy.4

In the late 1980s, with the assistance of Lady Parkinson, Edwards established the charity Action on Addiction, which raised funds to support addictions research. He set up the National Addiction Centre at the Institute of Psychiatry, which has since then undertaken important research into addiction in England and continues to thrive as an internationally recognised centre.

Edwards was the editor in chief of Addiction for 25 years. Robert West, his successor, said: “He was responsible for transforming a modest national journal into the leading international journal by providing it with a vision, an identity, and a mission.” Edwards’s family history and broad outlook on life gave him a very international perspective as journal editor. He was keen to consider the cultural implications of published research for a village in India or a hill tribe in Thailand or a factory in Japan.

Friendship and prolificacy

Edwards’s passion and gift for friendship was legendary. He immensely valued personal friendships and enjoyed the friendship of a huge international network of colleagues for whom a visit to London was incomplete without seeing him. He extended his reach by sending thoughtful notes and memos, and later emails, to budding researchers. Even his rejection letters showed such kindness and courtesy that one almost felt thankful to receive them.

Griffith kept writing books,5 6 including popular books, and articles for nearly 20 years after his formal retirement, keeping up a production schedule that would put many younger colleagues to shame. His last major work was a joint biography with Brian Vale of Thomas Trotter, whom Griffith described as “a man who combined a passionate enthusiasm for new knowledge and new ideas with a practical ability to do something about it. He was creative but could also be combative and contentious.”7 This would be an appropriate description of Griffith himself.

Griffith worked up until the week of his fatal stroke. He leaves his wife, Sue, and two children from a previous marriage.


Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e7234


  • Griffith Edwards, addictions clinician, researcher, and journal editor (b 1928; q Oxford 1955; MA, CBE), died after a major cerebrovascular accident on 13 September 2012.


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