John Corbett McDonald

BMJ 2016; 353 doi: (Published 08 June 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;353:i3161
  1. Matthew Limb
  1. Croydon
  1. limb{at}

Occupational epidemiologist whose work led to the “universal recognition of the toxicity of asbestos”

In the study of work related diseases, John Corbett McDonald was a pioneering investigator, whose research and techniques in many ways defined occupational epidemiology. His best known role from the mid-1960s onwards—analysing the effects on health of different forms of asbestos—yielded controversy in a highly contentious field.

An inspiration to epidemiologists worldwide, McDonald produced research that was “groundbreaking and vital to our understanding of asbestos health effects,” says Bruce Case, a pathology professor who worked with him at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

Supporters say that McDonald was hurt by allegations that he came under industry influence—correspondence showed that he consistently blocked attempts to interfere with his methods and findings.

“I personally think he is someone whose results stand for themselves,” says Anthony Newman Taylor, research and development director at the National Heart and Lung Institute, Imperial College, London. In a highly polarised climate, debate surrounding asbestos was marred by efforts to discredit work of high academic standing, Taylor says.

McDonald, who developed the use of tissue indicators of exposure, believed in the “big study.” He created a reliable national system of surveillance for work related respiratory disease (the SWORD system) as a basis …

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