People of Achievement

Richard W Smithells (1924 - 2002)

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Professor of Paediatrics and Child Health, 1968-1988

2002 - The Kennedy Foundation International Research Award for his work on the role of folic acid in preventing neural tube defects.

1982 - The James Spence Gold Medal (see photograph).

Dick Smithells trained at St Thomas’ Hospital Medical School and worked in Leeds hospitals between 1954 and 1957. He became a lecturer at the University of Liverpool in 1959 and became consultant paediatrician and medical superintendent for Alder Hey Hospital in 1964. In 1968 he took up the chair of Paediatrics and Child Health at Leeds University.

By his chair appointment at Leeds he followed the footsteps of his maternal grandfather, Julius Cohen, who was the first Professor of Organic Chemistry and his great uncle, Arthur Smithells, who was appointed to the first Chair of Chemistry at the Yorkshire College in 1885. Arthur Smithells was also actively involved in the establishment of the Victoria University and of the University of Leeds, of which he was the first Pro-Vice Chancellor.

Dick Smithells' lifelong work was in the prevention of disease in children and while at Liverpool he wrote four papers which provided the basis for his subsequent career. These were on neural tube defects, congenital abnormality registers, genetic counselling and rubella in pregnancy. Early work was on the effect of thalidomide in pregnancy.

Of major importance was his research into possible links between poor nutrition, such as vitamin deficiency, and malformations of the spine and brain such as spina bifida. In 1965, he and Hibbard demonstrated that the proportion of mothers of malformed babies who were folate deficient at the end of pregnancy was significantly higher than among mothers of healthy babies.

The 1967 Abortion Act allowed early termination of pregnancy if the foetus was at high risk of severe handicap, but Dick Smithells sought to prevent congenital defects. Shortly after his arrival in Leeds he established a laboratory to study the effects of drugs and nutrition on the early development of the embryo and foetus. He regarded the prevention of the development of congenital abnormalities as a goal and through a series of publications demonstrated the importance of vitamin supplements in the prevention of these conditions. His research in Liverpool and Leeds was funded with grants from Action Medical Research, now Action Research.

In 1991 the MRC concluded that folic acid supplementation should be provided for those with a previously affected pregnancy and that "public health measures should be taken to ensure that the diet of all women who bear children contains an adequate amount of folic acid."

He also demonstrated the value of rubella vaccination and so reduced the incidence of handicapped babies of pregnant mothers who had German measles.

Dick Smithells was also an excellent, much-admired teacher and joint author of ‘Lecture Notes on Paediatrics’, which ran to seven editions.

The excellence of his work led to significant national and international awards, including the James Spence Gold Medal by the British Paediatric Association in 1992 and, in 2000, the International Research Award of the Joseph P Kennedy Foundation for his work on the role of folic acid in preventing neural tube defects.

The School is indebted to Mrs Joy Smithells and to Dr John Buckler for their invaluable assistance in the preparation of this web page.

Other sources
Archives of Diseases in Childhood 1992, 67; 1061-1062
Leeds University Review, 1989/90, Vol 32; 320-321

Pages in this document

  1. People of Achievement
  2. Charles Turner Thackrah (1795 - 1833)
  3. Sir Clifford Allbutt (1836 - 1925)
  4. Friederich Wilhelm Eurich (1867 - 1945)
  5. John Deakin Heaton (1817 - 1880)
  6. Arthur Fergusson McGill, LSA, FRCS (1846 - 1890)
  7. Rt Hon Lord Berkeley Moynihan (1865 - 1936)
  8. Frank Maudsley Parsons (1918-1989)
  9. William Pickles (1885 - 1969)
  10. Arthur Mayo Robson (1853 - 1933)
  11. Richard W Smithells (1924 - 2002)