Michael Davies (University College London) reflects on the recent passing of Paul Wilkinson, a world-renowned environmental epidemiologist.
Professor Paul Wilkinson's interdisciplinary research investigated health in relation to air pollution, the built environment and climate change. This had a profound impact on how we understand the built environment – and the policies and practices that arise as a result.
Paul died suddenly and unexpectedly on 11 September 2022, aged 62. Paul worked at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine for almost 30 years. He trained in medicine and public health in Oxford and London.
My collaboration with Paul has been central to my research for many years and I was extremely fortunate to work with him on over 20 projects. Just a few short months ago, Paul and I were in Kenya together for a series of meetings. On my last evening there, over a beer, we reminisced and talked about our plans for the future. As always, it was a huge pleasure to spend time with Paul and it’s very difficult to think that I’ll no longer be able to do that.
I first met Paul after his interest in the connections between the built environment and health had been established – for example, his ground-breaking work with regards to the link between excess deaths in winter and low indoor temperatures (Wilkinson et al. 2001). Whilst continuing to work on a range of environmental health issues, Paul then increasingly began to focus on the links between climate change and human health.
In an important milestone, Paul led a key piece of work in 2009 on the connections between housing, climate change mitigation and health (Wilkinson et al. 2009) as part of a Lancet Series of six papers aiming to accelerate action on greenhouse-gas emissions (Haines et al. 2009). This influential work laid the foundations for much of Paul’s future research in this area. Paul was always fond of an acronym and via his leadership of projects such as ‘PURGE’ (Public health impacts in urban environments of greenhouse gas emissions reduction strategies) and ‘AWESOME’ (Air pollution and weather-related health impacts: methodological study of multi-pollutant exposures) he enabled substantial progress on our understanding of the health benefits of rapid and transformative action.
Paul was still leading several research projects in addition to being Scientific Director of the Wellcome Trust-funded project ‘Complex Urban Systems for Sustainability and Health’ (CUSSH) and Director of the ‘NIHR Health Protection Research Unit in Environmental Change and Health’. In all his work, he guided research on important issues (e.g. Milner et al. 2020, Deloy et al. 2021, Petrou et al. 2022) but also encouraged colleagues to ‘think big’ and engage with policy makers to help accelerate vital action. Paul was also instrumental to the formation and development of The Lancet Countdown which aims to ensure that health is at the centre of responses to climate change. In particular, Paul continued to make important contributions to the Countdown’s work on mitigation actions and health co-benefits (Romanello et al. 2022).
Paul was an inspirational colleague. Above all we will remember Paul as generous, kind, warm and always with a smile on his face. Paul was unfailingly modest about his achievements - he was, however, a world-leading scientist who shaped and steered his research field in a hugely impactful way. We will miss him, and his brilliance, terribly.
Deloly C., Roué-Le Gall A., Moore G., Bretelle L., Milner J., Mohajeri N., Osrin D., Salvia G., Symonds P., Tsoulou I., Zimmerman N., Wilkinson P., Davies, M. (2021). Relationship-building around a policy decision-support tool for urban health. Buildings and Cities, 2(1), 717–733.
Haines A., McMichael A.J., Smith K.R., Roberts I., Woodcock J., Markandya A., Armstrong B., Campbell-Lendrum D., Dangour A., Davies M., Bruce N., Tonne C., Barrett M., Wilkinson P. (2009). Public health benefits of strategies to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions: overview and implications for policy makers. The Lancet, 374(9707), 2104-2114.
Milner J., Hamilton I., Woodcock J., Williams M., Davies M., Wilkinson P., & Haines A. (2020). Health benefits of policies to reduce carbon emissions. British Medical Journal, 368.
Petrou G., Hutchinson E., Mavrogianni A., Milner J., Macintyre H., Phalkey R., ….Wilkinson P. (2022). Home energy efficiency under net zero: time to monitor UK indoor air. British Medical Journal, 377.
Romanello M., Di Napoli C., Drummond P., Green C., Kennard H., Lampard P., …. Wilkinson P,. …. et al. (2022). The 2022 report of the Lancet Countdown on health and climate change: health at the mercy of fossil fuels, The Lancet.
Wilkinson P., Landon M., Armstrong B., Stevenson S., McKee M. (2001). Cold comfort: the social and environmental determinants of excess winter death in England, 1986-1996. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
Wilkinson P., Smith K. R., Davies M., Adair H., Armstrong B., Barrett M., Bruce N., Chalabi Z., Haines A., Hamilton I., Oreszczyn T., Ridley I., Tonne C. (2009), Public health benefits of strategies to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions: household energy. The Lancet, 374(9705), 1917 - 1929.
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