Sir Austin Bradford Hill (1897-1991)

Austin Bradford Hill.

Austin Bradford Hill.

Credits:Wellcome Library, London.

Austin Bradford Hill was a British epidemiologist best known for his collaborative research with Richard Doll which linked smoking with cancer and other serious diseases. He was also acknowledged by his peers as the world’s leading medical statistician and was a pioneer in the use of randomised clinical trials.

A pilot during the First World War, Hill contracted tuberculosis while on service. The illness and his long recovery from it put paid to his intended medical career and he studied economics instead. In the interwar period he was able to combine these two interests through research in epidemiology and statistics, originally with the Industry Fatigue Research Board. This work included important studies on the health of printers, cotton workers and other occupational groups. At the end of the 1930s he also produced a book, Principles of Medical Statistics, which has remained a standard text on the subject.

In 1946, Hill was the statistician for the Medical Research Council’s Streptomycin in Tuberculosis Trials Committee, set up to investigate the value of that drug in treating tuberculosis. This study is generally accepted as the first randomised clinical trial - a method first suggested by Hill in the 1930s. However, it was his research with Richard Doll that ensured him a lasting place in medical history. Like Doll, he too was a smoker when they began their studies into lung cancer. Tobacco was not initially central to the investigations and other materials, such as the relatively new material Tarmac, used for roads, were the main suspects. But their ground-breaking work would confirm smoking as the culprit - although Hill did not finally give up his pipe until 1954.