Intended for healthcare professionals


David John Weatherall: haematologist and geneticist whose work on thalassaemia showed the potential of molecular medicine

BMJ 2019; 364 doi: (Published 10 January 2019) Cite this as: BMJ 2019;364:l92
  1. Tom Solomon, professor and director
  1. NIHR Health Protection Research Unit in Emerging and Zoonotic Infections, Institute of Infection and Global Health, University of Liverpool, UK
  1. tsolomon{at}
 Credit: Tom Solomon

David Weatherall was an icon of British medicine, a pioneering haematologist and geneticist whose work on thalassaemia showed the potential of applying molecular approaches to clinical medicine and led to the concept of clinician-scientist, as we know it today.

Born in Liverpool, Weatherall, as a student, was inspired by clinicians at the forefront of their specialism, including Rod Gregory, the discoverer of gastrin; and Harry Sheehan of the eponymous syndrome. He became interested in genetics while working as house physician to Cyril Clarke, who studied butterfly genetics as a hobby and would later identify the cause of rhesus haemolytic disease. A visit by the great geneticist JBS Haldane also inspired Weatherall.

An inauspicious start

Although Clarke and Haldane may have sparked Weatherall’s interest in genetics, it was a fortuitous encounter with a patient in Singapore that would set him on his way. After medical school and house jobs, Weatherall signed up for national service, but because of a “fear of flying, snakes, and bullets” asked to remain in the UK. As he delighted in telling people, however, through the army’s incompetence he was promptly despatched to Singapore, where he was in put in charge of the children’s ward despite having no paediatric experience. One of his first patients was the daughter of a Gurkha. She was severely anaemic and needed regular blood transfusions, but no cause could be found. Working with a local biochemist, Weatherall showed that she had thalassaemia, …

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