On March 22nd 2019, Strangeways Research Laboratory hosted a memorial for Dr John Powles, who died suddenly in late 2018.
Dr Powles worked at the Department of Public Health and Primary Care from 1991.
At Cambridge he specialised in east/west health differences in Europe, public health policies in developed countries and graduate education in public health. After he retired in 2011, he continued teaching and research as an Honorary Senior Visiting Fellow and helped create the 800 Years of Death and Disease in Cambridge walking tour for the University’s 800th anniversary.
The memorial welcomed his wife Adele (visiting from Spain), his daughter Rebecca (visiting from Australia), and one of John’s long-time friends and public health colleagues including Richard Taylor Australia), along with many DPHPC friends past and present.
This page collects Professor Carol Brayne’s address at the memorial alongside tributes and condolences from the wider public health family. Alongside Hebe Gouda, Rebecca Powles and Adela Sanz, Professor Brayne recently published a full obituary in The BMJ, while John’s Australian colleagues (Michael Abramson, Graham Giles, John Hopper and John Mathews) wrote another fulsome and moving tribute for Monash University.
Carol Brayne CBE
Professor of Public Health Medicine. Director of the Cambridge Institute of Public Health
Welcome to all, especially to Adela and Rebecca.
Thank you for making the time, some coming from across the world to allow us to come together to celebrate John’s life as a colleague and friend. There are many, many people who have sent their appreciations and tributes and we have laid out as many of these, as well as some photos etc. for later in the afternoon, during and after tea. First I will start with a much abbreviated biography, and then there will be short reflections from Richard, Steve and Hebe to represent different aspects of our relationships with John.
Brief biography: born 1943, died 2018 while on holiday with Adela, a good death for him but terribly sad for Adela, Rebecca and her family and a loss to all of us here and around the world who knew and loved him as a colleague and friend.
John grew up in rural Australia on a farm. He was a weekly boarder at secondary school – not fitting in with the classical blue skies and sports focused world it was then. He didn’t follow on in the farming tradition, but went into medicine with MBBS from Sydney in 1968 – a year of turbulence around the world. By that time he and others had already helped to transform Australian society to the multicultural welcoming country that it now is. I only discovered the full history when I researched his retirement talk – John was a Student Action for Aborigines (SAFA) member which helped get rid of racist legislation at State level.
He did the usual junior doctor jobs in 1969, dotted around New South Wales, but during this time he got Sociology III honours from UNSW as a ‘miscellaneous student’ which suits him quite well, I think. He came to the UK at the end of 1970 and spent five years there as a Research Fellow at Sussex University in the Centre for Social Research and the Science Policy Research Units. Returning to Australia in 1975 took up a lectureship at Monash – interestingly for the first three years of this appointment it was a joint one with Social Work (something that would be seen as pretty radical now), progressing to Senior Lecturer until 1991, when he came to Cambridge as a University Lecturer in 1991, becoming a Senior Lecturer in 2002. For a short period he also was Acting Director of the Cambridge Institute of Public Health.
Although he retired in 2011, eight years ago, he maintained a strong connection with us: coming to teach the Masters students in his inimitable way every year since then.
Research: His achievements are many, and I can only highlight a few. His scholarship was deep, and his early contributions included a lifelong interest in the way that our history and socioeconomic context influences health. He phrased this as ‘political and economic institutions and the control of non-communicable disease and injury in developed countries’. And his interest in population health across geographies. His interests took him back in history, through war, into labour and work, health services and across countries from his own Australia, to Europe, particularly Greece and Bulgaria where he initiated ground-breaking work on migrant health and vascular health. His work covered the value of measurement at population level, to detailed work on risk factors related to variation in disease occurrence and mortality. Contributions to the major textbooks – notably the Oxford Textbook of Public Health. In his most recent academic work he led and contributed substantially to the Global Burden of Disease work on risk associated with excess sodium intake.
During the years in Cambridge he brought this deep scholarship and knowledge of history, political science to his work as a public health researcher including teaching. In the early years of being in Cambridge he led and was actively involved in medical student teaching of public health, but then moved across to being the course leader for the Masters in Public Health which Tom Davies had re-ignited. He did this for many years, and looked after and taught all our masters graduates as well as supervising PhDs. After retirement he continued to contribute to the teaching of the Public Health module that he had developed.
For myself: John came to the department the same year that I also was appointed as a lecturer. This was the start of the major growth of the department and those units and groups that now make up the Institute. He was a marvellous colleague: kind, compassionate. All brain and no edge, so enthusiastic about ideas and discussion, deeply principled and a true scholar. He taught me so much in the wonderful conversations held with me, half in his room on the way past, sometimes lasting a long time – most particularly the detail of Haysek, Keynes, Friedman and the larger ideological forces that shape our lives and health.
Clinical Dean and Conjoint Associate Professor, Maitland Clinical School, University of Newcastle, NSW, Australia
John was from Deniliquin in the Riverina region of New South Wales (NSW) and came to Sydney University to do Medicine. He was a couple of years ahead of me. He joined the Humanist Society at the University and immediately committed himself to speak out against injustice and racism. He also had a natural scepticism and dislike of dogma and won a prize as an undergraduate for an essay debunking Freud.
I first met him when we competed against one another in a by-election for a position on the Student Representative Council; our first foray into politics. Mine were Catholic Marxist and his Humanist Fabian. We each regarded the other as our most dangerous opponent and were both nonplussed at coming last and second last in what was actually a popularity contest.
We then became friends, and both participated in the Student Action for Aborigines (SAFA) bus tour of NSW IN 1965. This was loosely modelled on the Freedom Rides in the Southern United States but much less dramatic. Nonetheless, under the leadership of Charlie Perkins, the first Aborigine to graduate from an Australian University (from Sydney in 1966), we created enough of a stir to open up the whole question of racism towards Aboriginal people in New South Wales and I think we will have had some effect on the outcome of the referendum in 1967 which transferred responsibility for Indigenous Affairs to the Commonwealth from the States. This was important because by the 1960s, all the racist legislation ironically called “Aborigines Protection” acts were in state jurisdictions and the referendum result meant it was swept aside overnight. Of course, that merely made it possible to move forward, and progress since has been frustratingly slow, but at least John and the rest of us had a small part in getting the ball rolling.
Following 1965, I remained friends with John although we frequently differed violently. He was always calm, courteous, and respectful in difference. John graduated a couple of years before me and we did not see one another again until 1974 when we met up briefly in England. We stayed in touch and met again when he came to Australia in 2010. I was running an outreach clinic at Moree which was one of the towns on the bus tour and John and Adela were able to accompany me and my wife there. We had a wonderful nostalgic trip to Moree and other places in Northern NSW.
We visited John in Cambridge in 2012 just after his retirement, and then again at the SAFA reunion in 2015. We were looking forward to seeing him again in the next couple of years but were very saddened to hear of his death. It was a great privilege to know John.
Various Bulgarian colleagues and friends
On September 15, 2018, the prominent public health researcher, activist and great friend of Bulgaria Dr John Powles suddenly died. He was born on October 15, 1943. He graduated medicine at Sydney in 1968. He was a member of the research team in a large-scale projects researching in the field of non-infectious diseases epidemiology in relation with nutrition. He studied the Greek migrants’ health and that of their close relatives in Greece and proved the protective role of the Mediterranean diet.
After his final affiliation to the Department of Public Health and Primary Care at the University of Cambridge in 1991, Dr Powles devoted himself to studying the factors determining the differences in Health Indicators between the West and the East of Europe. His health-related analyses were focused on the control of chronic diseases in the developed countries and the role of political and economic institutions in the process of chronic disease prevention. Dr Powles was very active in the worldwide project Global Burden of Diseases and particularly in the part on over-use of salt and chronic diseases.
He published fundamental articles, he is an author of chapters from the Oxford Textbook on Public Health publicly expressing opinions on modern issues of health policy of developed countries. He was a lecturer in the Masters programs teaching epidemiology and public health at the University of Cambridge. After his retirement in 2012, he remained a lecturer at the same university on module Assessment of Public Health and International Public Health. Dr John Powles was a coordinator of the first TEMPUS project in Bulgaria in the field of medicine and public health – Support for Public Health Disciplines 1992-1995. As a result, many Bulgarian physician and researchers specialised in epidemiology, public health, biostatistics and health promotion at Cambridge, Edinburgh and Rotterdam.
During 1999-2001, he was leading the research team of the international project Varna Diet and Stroke study funded by Welcome Trust, which created the first Register of Stroke in the Central and Eastern Europe, it detected the actual scope of morbidity and mortality and their relationship to diet. We acknowledge the contribution of Dr Powles in the education of modern generation of scientist in the field of public health. From the beginning of his ‘Bulgarian period’ he was inspiring and following the modernization of social medicine practice in our country and the attempts of Social Medicine Journal to participate in these processes. Dr Powles was one of the fathers of the new public history in Bulgaria. Dr Powles was an honourable member of our NGO Public Health-99. His personality of an inspiring and enthusiastic scientist and a teacher will stay forever in the hearts of the people who had the privilege to work with him.
Associate Professor and Dean of Faculty of Public Health, Medical University of Varna, Bulgaria
On behalf of the academic body of the Department of Social Medicine and Health Care Organisation at the Faculty of Public Health, Medical University of Varna, Bulgaria, I want to acknowledge the exceptional contribution of Dr John Powles to the development of the scientific field of public health and its basic discipline ‘Epidemiology’ in Bulgaria.
Due to Dr Powles’ personal efforts and persistence, one of the first European TEMPUS projects – Development of Disciplines in the Field of Public Health – was accomplished in our country and more than 1,000 practitioners and researchers were acquainted with the latest developments in the field of epidemiology of non-communicable diseases.
Dr Powles opened the doors for more than ten young Bulgarian researchers to do their Master studies, PhDs or short-term specialisations in the field of epidemiology in Cambridge, which had a profound impact, not only on their personal careers but on the focus and quality of public health research carried out in Bulgaria.
We will be forever grateful to Dr Powles for teaching us and setting an example of what a real researcher is and should be – fully immersed in and dedicated to science, one who never stops developing, fighting against inequalities with the passion and faith in social justice as his highest ideal.
John is the founding father of a scientific group in the field of public health in Bulgaria who will try and follow his ideal and keep his name alive. Thank you, dear John.
Associate Professor, Head of Department of Department of Social Medicine and Health Care Organization (1988-2000), Medical University of Varna
I feel responsible and emotionally very moved in my attempt to render the spirit of the words written by my colleagues who had the chance to communicate with Dr John Powles within various projects, but also in a purely human aspect.
‘Brilliant researcher’, ‘inspirer’, ‘teacher’, ‘intellectual’, ‘demanding and caring’ are some of the most quoted traits to describe him. For the young colleagues, he and the TEMPUS Project played a crucial role for their start in science, for the senior academic staff he brought shared new ideas for the development of public health as science and practice.
A highly erudite personality, combining intellect with decisiveness for energetic actions in the name of people’s health – these were our first impressions from Dr Powles when we were planning the future BG-3604-3604 TEMPUS project 27 years ago in Varna. These impressions were not only confirmed but enriched during our long-standing cooperation. His exclusive interest in the life and culture of the people in our country made his participation easier in national health and policy interventions and especially in interventions in the region of Varna. He created scientific and human bridges between Bulgaria/Varna and Cambridge.
His analytical mind and his ability to pose nontrivial research questions together with the humane concern and high criteria gave incentives to our colleagues for professional development in the modern public health needed so much in Bulgaria. John remains a paragon of critical thinking, of action toward change and passionate advocacy of high ideals. He taught invaluable lessons to us, his Bulgarian friends. His bright personality will remain unforgettable to us!
Ivan Chernozemsky & Nikolai Chernozemsky
Professor, Coordinator for Bulgaria of the Project TEMPUS JEP 3604 and World Foundation partner on the project (pictured)
It is difficult for me to write these words, it is hard to believe that his flowing energy is gone, that his sincere smile will not brighten his face when we discuss the next project for Bulgaria!
At the same time, it is easy and pleasant to write about my memories of John, the everlasting enthusiast who made for our public health more than whole institutes. John is the man and the specialist who introduced the world’s standards in our work in Bulgaria and who, though softly but uncompromisingly, observed that they are followed strictly.
But the most important thing that he left behind are his students and followers. Farewell, my friend!
Trakia, Department of Social Medicine and Health Management, University Stara Zagora, Bulgaria
In the academic year 1994-1995, a young Bulgarian Biostatistics assistant spent a semester among the group of MPhil Epidemiology students at the Institute of Public Health, University of Cambridge. That young professional, yet not quite far from the beginning of academic career, was me. I remember that what proved the greatest challenge to my skills during that semester, was the preparation for the final thesis. Its topic was The Epidemiology of the Haemorrhagic Stroke, and the academic supervisor was John Powles. John’s guidance was indispensable – he helped me gain a veritable insight into the essence of the problem, into the appropriate manner of constructing a review based on epidemiologic research, into the significance of critical reading and thinking for the selection of bibliographic references. During the process, I had the chance to witness John masterfully leading the creation of scientific work of such quality and value that were, up to that time, quite unknown to me.
What I learned there and then has had a huge impact on my professional path. John was a strict instructor, but at the same time, an immensely concerned and helpful tutor to everyone who had come to do studies at Cambridge. I am forever grateful for his kind attitude and great professionalism. I sincerely grieve his loss.
Associate Professor, Medical University of Pleven, Bulgaria
John will always be an incredible scientist, a man with a capital letter and a unique friend of Bulgaria. I have been using for years in my lectures his case studies from Australia about the implementation of the healthy lifestyle principles and about the efforts of public health professionals to introduce healthy nutrition. I have always remembered his phrase: “If I were the Prime Minister of Bulgaria, the first thing I would do is to provide fresh fruit and vegetables all year round at an affordable price for the whole population.” He was the first to insist on the rapid introduction of email communication among us in the 1990s. I will not forget how he shared our enjoyment on June 22, 1994, during the epidemiology course, when Bulgaria won fourth place at the World Football Cup in USA. John really loved Bulgaria.
In June 2011, before his retirement, he visited Bulgaria together with his wife Adela, as a culmination of the long-term collaboration with our faculties and public health departments. John responded to my invitation and gave his famous lecture at Medical University of Pleven: Assessing the Global Burden of Disease Due to Excessive Salt Use. During this visit, with a rented car, John and Adela traveled all over our country visiting all the Thracian tombs and holy places in Bulgaria, for which he had previously gathered in-depth information. Isn’t this the most vivid expression of the love of a foreigner to Bulgaria?
John, we will always keep the most precious memories for you!
Associate Professor, Department Social Medicine FPH, Medical University, Sofia
I was lucky to have Dr John Powles as my teacher and supervisor of my Master and Doctoral dissertations at the University of Cambridge. He played a huge role in shaping my life and helped me become the person, the teacher and the researcher that I am.
Dr John Powles contributed greatly to the development of public health, both through its remarkable scientific achievements and through the preparation and creation of a whole generation of young scientists and researchers worldwide.
His life was devoted to science, teaching, and human perfection. Now, when we say our last thank you to the great scientist and person, we can respect his memory by striving to always do so honestly, selflessly and earnestly, as the example of his life teaches us.
Deeply bowed to the memories of our unforgettable teacher and colleague Dr John Powles. Last farewell with much love and sadness! Rest in peace!
Dr Oscar H Franco
Professor of Epidemiology & Public Health, Director of Institute of Social and Preventive Medicine ISPM, University of Bern
There are a few legends in the field of Public Health and John Powles is definitively one of them, raising to the level of a myth.
I met John in 2008 and I found in him a truly passionate public health scientist with his heart entirely dedicated to transmit his passion by training the new generations of public health scientists and practitioners. His wealth of knowledge was remarkable and this could be told by the moment you would walk into his office and have to struggle your way through books, articles and documents to be able to find John seating somewhere in this jungle of knowledge. Soon I had the honour to work more and more closely with John, lecturing together and sharing coffees while discussing different topics from Russia, to cardiovascular disease, Colombia, life tables, etc. The more we talked and shared time the more I admired John, an admiration that only grew as the years passed by and as I gradually discovered that behind the myth was man of flesh and bone and not a cyborg programmed to know everything there is to know regarding public health, prevention and global health.
I will dearly miss the myth and the man and the sadness of his lost can only be compensated by the certainty that he has never left us, as his passion and knowledge lives on me and many more generations of public health scientists. Thanks John!
Medical Coordinator, Médecins Sans Fontières, South Africa
I heard from Oscar H Franco just yesterday and was truly saddened by the news. I had just emailed John the day previously although wish I had been in touch more regularly…
John was a remarkable character and a great mind, I can vividly remember the myriad of different topics we would discuss, in particular one day when I expected he was about to give me some comments on my work and ended up we ended up discussing the Chinese investment bank at length. I saw a great picture once of John on a Greek island in a 60s-style shirt, on a table outside, with a queue of people to be interviewed for a cohort study, I think… It’s a picture that to me encapsulated his combination of eccentricity and academic rigour.
Professor Emeritus, University of California, San Diego
I first met John Powles in his Monash days when we were both young faculty. Although we never lived in the same city, never published together and really only had occasional conversations, we became friends because of our respect for each other’s work on the relationship between behaviours and disease patterns. He was a big thinker on this topic and someone who valued rigorous methods and it was a joy to spend time discussing the issues with him, whatever the communication medium.
Of course, I was very impressed with the early 1990s clarion call that he and Tony McMichael gave to our discipline on the likely effects of current population behaviours and the resultant climate change on the health of our planet.
John, you helped keep me grounded in my thinking, I will miss you.
Professor, Centre for Research in Public Health and Community Care (CRIPACC), School of Health and Social Work, University of Hertfordshire
I first met John when I joined the MPhil in Public Health team to provide the teaching in social science in 2006. My memory is of John sitting in scholarly splendour in his IPH room, a space piled high with books and papers, bookshelves bowing under the weight. I immediately felt at home, not least that John had to move a pile of papers from a chair to give me somewhere to sit.
John was an extraordinary colleague with 360 degree vision on the numerous subjects that contribute to evidence in public health; he coupled this with respect for the expertise of others in their specialist subjects. In doing so, John managed that difficult task of reaching beyond mere multi-disciplinarity to the interdisciplinary requirements and challenges of a rigorous approach to public health in the 21st century.
John was an outstanding Programme Director for the MPhil in Public Health and will be very much missed by colleagues and former students alike.
Dr Krasimira Aleksandrova
Research group leader, Senior Scientist Group Nutrition, Immunity and Metabolism Department of Nutrition and Gerontology, German Institute of Human Nutrition
It is not easy to find the right words… and the emotion is strong, but here are some thoughts I would like to share:
John brought the sparkle of interest in research that turned into my professional path. His passion for science, strive for academic excellence and high standards have shaped my attitude to research. He not only left important trace in epidemiology and public health research, but was a personal and professional inspiration for many young researchers. John remains my role model as an educator, intellectual and person. John stays and will always be among us with his research and his ideas.
Witold A. Zatoński
Professor, President and Founder, Health Promotion Foundation, Poland
This is very sad news indeed. I am so sorry for your loss. As you might know, John was my mentor, colleague and friend. Thanks to John and Tony McMichael I was able to publish my first important English-language scientific paper. John and I spent a few years working together on a very important report on the Iron Curtain in health. He was a mentor to many Central and Eastern European scientists and scholars and his influence on developing European epidemiology cannot be overemphasised.
Dr Nikolay Nikolov
Consultant Anaesthetist, Dublin, Ireland
John Powles was the first person I got in contact in Cambridge – he met me at the railway station and was striking in the energy and spontaneity of his ideas, his plans and drives regarding our future collaboration and work. I came to know later that this was just him: possessing contagious enthusiasm, will to help, wisdom. His ever present intellectual curiosity and social justice awareness made him truly special!
Professor, Faculty of Medicine, School of Public Health, Imperial College, London
I first got to know John 17 or 18 years ago, when I asked him to review a background paper for a major WHO report. We knew that there were issues in the paper but we simply didn’t have the depth of knowledge that we needed to put our finger on what the issues were. John wrote such a thoughtful and rich review that we thought we should just find a way to get him to write the entire paper. That was the beginning of some of the most interesting and illuminating conversations that I have had, and probably will have, about the science and politics of health. Of course, being John you never knew where the conversation would end up and how it would get there. But the one thing that was clear is that very few people could see public health in its entirety, to see the forest and the trees together, and to care about it so deeply in the way that John did. I know I will miss those long chats and I am sure I will cherish and remember the ones that I managed to have.
The following were sent shortly after news of John’s death became known…
“Very sad news indeed. I have happy memories of many discursive chats with John whenever our paths crossed.” Dr F P Treasure, Statistician, National Cancer Registration and Analysis Service, Public Health England
“I was so very sorry to hear the sad news about John Powles. He was such a lovely man and always very kind to me when I worked on the MPhIl.” Dr Sian Evans, Associate Director/Consultant in Public Health Medicine, Public Health England
“My direct contacts with John were few but memorable. I always enjoyed his company and his quirks. He added a nicely different personal and professional view to the epidemiological scene, a deep and lateral thinker who pursued his ideas with passion and persistence.” Chris Bain, Inaugural Professor of Practice in Digital Health in the Faculty of Information Technology, Monash University
“I am very sorry to hear of John’s death. John was my tutor and I am very saddened to hear about this.” Dr Alistair Lipp, Medical Director, NHS England Midlands & East (East)
“Still doesn’t seem true, we were just working on a chapter together and he had just submitted it two days before.” Dr Hebe Gouda, Project Manager, Prevention of Noncommunicable Diseases, WHO Geneva
“John was a wonderful gentleman, who bought laughter and joy to every meeting we had. I thoroughly enjoyed learning from him, and I think what I remember most fondly was his genuine compassion for all the students.” Dr Angela Wood, University Lecturer in Biostatistics, University of Cambridge
“So very sad to hear this, but more than happy to help remember him.” Ann Louise Kinmonth CBE, Emeritus Professor and Foundation Chair of General Practice, University of Cambridge, Fellow St John’s College, Cambridge
“John remains a deep trace in my mind in respect of his professionalism, the accuracy and precision of work. I connect his personality with a crucial new stage in my professional development, for which he has a huge contribution.” Yuliyana Marinova, Associate Professor, Medical Faculty, Trakia University, Stara Zagora
“Very sad news. I taught a public health assessment course with John for few years and it was always great experience to work with him.” – Dr Marko Tainio, Centre for Diet and Activity Research, MRC Epidemiology Unit, University of Cambridge
“John was an interesting character and we had vegetarianism and the planet in common, as well as other things! I think he had a good life.” Jayne Green, Administrative Officer, University of Cambridge, School of Clinical Medicine
“John was a wonderful man and inspirational to everyone.” Rosemarie Bell, MPhil Courses Teaching Coordinator, University of Cambridge