I’ve just finished writing an obituary for the British Medical Journal – my fourth. My latest was about Sid Watkins, a professor of neurology but best known for being the Formula One medic. After Ayrton Senna was killed in 1994 he helped introduce a whole raft of measures to improve safety on F1 circuits. So successful was he that there has been no death or serious injury at F1 since Senna’s death.
Writing an obit is a fascinating process and it has taken me a while to hone it. The problem is that everyone says very nice things about the person you’re writing about – the trick is to get behind this and find the detail that makes their life worth commemorating. When writing obits about medics – especially academics – it’s also tempting to write that it was your subject’s efforts alone that made a difference to the development of their particular field of research.
When I interviewed Michael Marmot about John Bunker, I asked him if Prof Bunker was ahead of his time. Prof Marmot rightly retorted that being ahead of one’s time is an academic’s job. I liked that answer and will remember it next time I get too carried away.