Former Professor of Medicine, Queen Elizabeth Hospital and Dean of Birmingham Medical School (b1921; q1945 Cambridge; d2008) Owen Wade, Dean of Birmingham Medical School from 1978-1984, was one of the founding fathers of clinical pharmacology and therapeutics in the UK.
His greatest legacy is the British National Formulary, which was the ‘bible’ for dispensers and prescribers. In 1978 Owen became Chair of the Formulary Committee and led the team which, by 1981, had transformed the BNF into its modern, paperback format, published every six months and used by thousands of doctors, pharmacists and trainee prescribers in the UK and in many other countries worldwide.
Born in Penarth, South Wales, in 1921, he was the son of a surgeon and, like his three brothers, went on to qualify in medicine. As a teenager, Owen would help his father give
anaesthetics (cloth and bottle) and begin learning the techniques of surgery. Well before starting his clinical course he had removed an appendix, repaired a hernia and enucleated a prostate – all performed rapidly before the anaesthetic wore off.
He went to Emmanuel College, Cambridge where he obtained First-Class Honours, starting his clinical course at University College, London, in 1942. On one occasion, he had to deliver a baby on the platform of a Tube station – dealing with spectators by using the old trick of dispatching them in search of boiling water.
After time at the Pneumoconiosis Research Unit in South Wales, he arrived in Birmingham as a lecturer in cardiac catheter studies. At the age of 36 he moved to Belfast Medical School in 1957 to head a new clinical pharmacology unit, remaining there until 1971.
Owen set about devising a course, putting together a lecture programme and planning practical classes, having never done anything like this before. He gave all the lectures and ran all the practicals. He soon complemented the lectures with interactive road
shows, discussing the management of specific patients with a panel of students whilst the rest of the class listened, learned and joined in. These were very relevant clinically. He became the first consultant to have beds in both teaching hospitals.
In 1961 it became clear that thalidomide taken during pregnancy caused very severe, often fatal, abnormalities in the fetus. Many babies were born with no arms and no legs (phocomelia). His response was positive. He tried to find out how much thalidomide had been prescribed in Northern Ireland and by whom. This proved impossible, but he was able prospectively to quantify all the drugs prescribed by each GP in Northern Ireland, and subsequently worked with colleagues to obtain comparable data for Norway,Sweden, the Czech Republic and West Germany. He used the computer based system used in Northern Ireland to pay the pharmacists, and became the first person to use computers in this type of research, and the first to produce numerical data on drug utilisation.
These tools fed his interest in adverse drug reactions and he wrote some of the earliest papers and books on this subject. The nation was horrified by the thalidomide disaster. At that time there was no legal framework for assessing new drugs, no system for monitoring the safety of drugs already on the market and no means of communicating rapidly with prescribers about safety concerns. In 1963 the Government set up the Committee on Safety of Drugs, the so-called Dunlop Committee. Owen was a founder member and subsequently went on to chair the Committee of Review of Medicine, the Adverse Drugs Reaction Subcommittee and became a member of the Medicines Commission which set up and oversaw the regulatory committee structure.
As Dean at Birmingham, he achieved a lot, ascribing this to being cheerful and
optimistic, his wife, his ability to sleep well and his capacity to get on with colleagues. In 1983 Owen was awarded a CBE, and in 1989 he was given an honorary doctorate by the University of Belfast.
He leaves his wife Margaret, three daughters and grandchildren.