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The life and death of the man who made the link between exercise and health

Posted on 28 November 2009 | 11:11am

Until yesterday, I had never heard of Professor Jerry Morris. Yet a fascinating obituary in The Times made me wish I had.

Maybe it is because I am now on the back nine of life, as over 50s golfers call it, that I read obituaries more than I used to. It is also – another back nine point perhaps – because often I will have known one or more of the people covered. Most weeks there seems to be a former MP who was around when I first covered Parliament.

But it is also because with the standard of writing and reporting across most of the media falling, obituaries in the broadsheets often contain some of the best old-fashioned journalism, and the best stories.

Professor Morris was Emeritus Professor of Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and a leading epidemiologist.

The obit records that he ‘effectively proved the connection between health and physical exercise by studying the comparative incidence of heart attacks between London’s bus drivers and bus conductors.’

I don’t know why that tickled me so much, but tickle me it did.

He was not the first to assume a link between exercise and health, but the first to provide data, first published in The Lancet in 1953. And its base was years of study of bus drivers, who spent most of their working day seated behind the wheel, and conductors who made hundreds of journeys up and down the stairs of double-decker buses every day. No prizes for guessing which group had the longer-lasting hearts.

He did similar research among postal workers, finding that postmen who delivered on foot or by bike were less likely to have a heart attack than sedentary clerks or telephonists.

And then he set to work on a study of 18,000 desk bound civil servants, and found that the fittest were those who undertook regular vigorous exercise.

It all seems very obvious now. But it was trail-blazing stuff and he was considered something of an eccentric, not least because he was one of the first people to take up jogging.

This was also the pre-computer age so this vast research was all recorded by pen and paper, but led eventually to the accepted wisdom that exercise is good for you.

It appears to have been tough though. He clearly found it difficult to get acceptance for his work. Some of the papers ridiculed him. It was when the Americans took up his research that he started to make a bit of progress.

He later sat on a number of public health policy committees but again found resistance to measures he recommended to tackle problems caused by smoking, pollution, health inequalities.

I loved the exchange recorded when Professor Morris was studying juvenile rheumatism and rheumatic heart disease, which affected poor children, and a superior who worked in Harley Street and at Eton, said he never saw a single case at the school. ‘An acute clinical observation,’ remarked the professor.

He enjoyed a low pulse rate and well into his nineties he swam, cycled or walked every day. He did most of his running round Hampstead Heath, so I must have seen him over the years.

And in the last eight weeks of his life he went to 14 plays, four operas and two concerts. He was ’99 and a half.’

A life well lived.

  • Harriet Pearse

    Nice read. It makes you wonder – especially the bit about him being ridiculed at the time – whether for example those who are now warning of climate change disaster are being listened to too late. Or whether those calling for legalisation of drugs are ahead of their time. It is always interesting to see the difference between eventually accepted conventional wisdom, and the pain of those who are trying to get it accepted in the first place

  • Malcolm Kelly

    I usually come on here for a good old fashioned dose of Tory bashing, of which there is not nearly enough going on may I say, so thanks for that. But I like it when you have the odd break from politics and induldge in a bit of musing. The Prof sounds quite a spirit

  • Phil Willis

    Duly inspired, I will do my long run of the week … in training for first marathon

  • betty curtis

    Hi Alistair

    Thanks for telling us about Professor Morris
    A true champion of the people especially to speak out on health inequalities & It makes me emotional that certain illnesses only occur in the less well off in society. This is why Labour must win the battle to eradicate Poverty.

  • Audrey Wilson

    Alastair my dear…… make no mention of your current excercise programme or health regime?????????????…………..Mine consists of a minimum of 4 racketball games a week at an age no longer disclosed……..I think it’s really time we all got off our backsides.

  • Marek

    Remember, when you appear before Chiolcot – you believed everything that you were told by the intelligence services.