Professor Jean Golding, OBE

Doctor of Laws Professor Jean Golding

Tuesday 29 January 2013 at 2.30 pm - Orator: Professor George Davey Smith

Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor,

There are many reasons to be proud of Bristol – both the city and the University. Professor Jean Golding’s work, which has engaged an unprecedented proportion of the population of the city in a core University research endeavour, should be a source of pride to all who care about Bristol.

Jean’s 33 years in Bristol followed an eventful earlier career. The young Jean Bond was interested in biology and animal behaviour, but at the age of 14 a bout of polio rendered laboratory bench science a less tenable option, and Jean instead read mathematics at St Anne’s College, Oxford, graduating in 1961. As Jean Fedrick, with two children and following a brief teaching career, she, in her own words, “fell into the epidemiological field, more or less by accident” in the mid 1960s. Obtaining a PhD in Medical Statistics from University College, London, her early work was on two pioneering studies, the Oxford Record Linkage study and the 1958 national birth cohort. Her work was often methodologically ingenious, recognising that, as a purely observational science involving conscious human agents, epidemiological findings interpreted naively could lead to misleading conclusions. The then controversial issue of home versus hospital delivery was a case in point. Jean demonstrated that in the 1958 birth cohort it could appear that home deliveries resulted in lower stillbirth and neonatal mortality. However women manifesting problems were likely to end up with hospital births even if they had intended to have a home delivery, and analysis by where women intended to deliver suggested that hospital births were safer. Jean moved on to work on the 1970 national birth cohort, again calling naive analyses into question when showing that the association between premarital conception and adverse birth outcomes could be accounted for by characteristics of the women involved, and that precipitated marriage may not be the solution it seemed. Jean was also an astute critic of the work of others, often bringing new analyses into play, with one senior epidemiologist being chided in a letter to the British Medical Journal entitled “Perinatal epidemiology in wonderland”, with Lewis Carroll receiving due acknowledgement.  

In 1980 the University of Bristol was lucky enough to attract Jean to a Senior Research Fellow post. During this period Jean helped to design and establish the National Greek Perinatal Survey and the Jamaican Birth Survey, and began planning her most audacious project, the Children of the 90s study. This study, heralded in a news item in the British Medical Journal in 1989, was to be a major advance on other birth cohorts, as it would recruit women when pregnant, rather than at the birth of their child. This allowed for the establishment of a bank of biological samples – initially blood from the mothers during pregnancy, to be followed by umbilical cord blood from the baby at birth, slices of umbilical cord and the storage of the placentae. This biobank – the word did not exist at the time - now contains over a million samples taken from the mothers, their partners and the children over a period of over 21 years. Over 14,000 pregnant women were recruited across the whole of the county of Avon, as it then was, hence the name by which the study is known by the international scientific community, the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, or ALSPAC. The study has, of course, outlived the old county, abolished in 1996, but it lives on in what is unquestionably the world-leading study of its type.

The scientific vision necessary for instigating such an enterprise had to be matched by steely determination in the face of the many obstacles that could derail its progress. Jean certainly rose to the challenge, and it is doubtful if many others could have kept the show on the road given the uncertain funding situation which bedevils all but the most fortunate long-term longitudinal studies. Indeed, Jean’s aforementioned 1989 announcement of the intention to initiate Children of the 90s ended on the optimistic note that the active engagement of funding organisations was being encouraged. Cohort studies are expensive to run, and it’s certainly the case that for many years ALSPAC’s survival depended on Jean’s vigorous encouragement of such funding organisations to actively engage with the study.         

In 1991, as ALSPAC recruitment got underway, Jean became Professor of Paediatric and Perinatal Epidemiology at the University of Bristol. She had established the journal Paediatric and Perinatal Epidemiology in 1987 to promote the epidemiological study of pregnancy, childbirth and child development and continued to be its editor-in-chief for 25 years, for most of this period simultaneously steering ALSPAC in new directions. Over the first few years of the study the mothers and their partners completed many questionnaires, and when the children were aged 7 the whole cohort was invited to a detailed clinical assessment. This cyclical activity of repeat examinations and further biological sample collection led to the collection of an unprecedented volume of data on children as they move through to young adulthood.

The myriad findings from ALSPAC defy summary, so I will just mention a few that Jean discussed recently in a paper reflecting on the first 20 years of ALSPAC. Jean’s work has highlighted the contribution of the home physical environment, in particular domestic air pollution, to asthma. However it was also shown that it is possible for children to be too clean when it comes to risk of developing eczema. Maternal anxiety during pregnancy and use of paracetamol were also related to asthma risk. Eating fish during pregnancy – decried in some quarters due to possible contamination by mercury and other chemicals in sea food – was related to better, not worse, cognitive function in offspring, and improved visual acuity too. Some generally accepted assumptions also needed re-evaluation: Jean showed that levels of depression and anxiety among mothers were in general higher during pregnancy than in the postnatal period. The dads were not forgotten either: postnatal depression among fathers was associated with adverse consequences for the behaviour of children.

In the early 1970s, working on the Oxford Record Linkage Study, Jean developed what became a long term research interest in sudden unexplained infant deaths. In particular, a change in infant sleeping position from prone to on the back was shown to explain the decline in sudden infant deaths in Avon, and further studies implicated parental smoking and some shared sleeping  arrangements as risky. In some circles there was reluctance to advance “Back to sleep” campaigns since it was considered this might lead to developmental delays. Using ALSPAC data Jean allayed such fears, which encouraged the expansion of campaigns to discourage prone infant sleeping internationally. Jean recently wrote a paper entitled “Are findings from large longitudinal studies of child health and development useful or just of interest?; her work clearly demonstrates that they are both.

Jean formally retired in 2006 and became an Emeritus Professor, but it would be impossible to recognise this through any diminution in her research activity. She was awarded an OBE in 2012, but remains proudest of times when parents stop her in the street to tell her how proud they were to be in Children of the 90s. Jean is always the first to say that it is the study participants that make a study, but she has undoubtedly put Bristol on the map with respect to international biomedical science.

Mr Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Jean Golding as pre-eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa


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