News & Features

Me and my mentor

David Barker recalls his time as a junior doctor under the inspirational John Butterfield, Guy’s first Professor of Experimental Medicine

Dr David Barker FRS is a physician and epidemiologist who some 25 years ago first published what has become known as the Barker Hypothesis: that people with low birth weight, the result of poor nutrition in the womb, are at greater risk of developing coronary heart disease. He has since applied the same theory regarding pre-birth nutrition to other chronic diseases, notably type 2 diabetes, hypertension and stroke.

His many years of painstaking, step-by-step research is an extraordinary story, mixing social history, statistics, biology and more in an international hunt for clues that smacks just a little of Dan Brown. His research, which was originally highly controversial, has steadily become recognised by the medical establishment. He has received numerous international awards, is a Fellow of the Royal Society and was made a CBE in 2005.

Dr Barker’s medical career began at Guy’s in the 1950s. ‘I always intended to go, because my aunt was a radiographer there,’ he says. He studied medicine during what he calls ‘the end of the old-fashioned Guy’s. The NHS was relatively new then – less than 10 years old – and the attitudes to patients could be old-fashioned.’ Consultants were authoritarian and not far removed from the James Robertson Justice caricature.

An exception was John Butterfield, later Lord Butterfield, Guy’s first Professor of Experimental Medicine. ‘I worked for him as a junior doctor. He was younger, part of the new generation, and a breath of fresh air. He was a wonderful man: inspirational, sociable and friendly. He created a different atmosphere.’

Dr Barker says he always planned to do research. He studied natural history as a boy, and was always interested in biology, but he learned from Butterfield that he could be a doctor, too.

‘He ran a research empire but was also a clinician – that is the fantastic life,’ says Dr Barker. He found his interest in epidemiology through Butterfield, too, and published a paper on the subject when he was still at Guy’s.

Butterfield resonated with the interns, who were full of optimism for the young NHS. ‘Nobody minded working phenomenal hours. I worked for 12 days and nights – and wasn’t allowed to leave – then had two days off. And I was married with kids! But you didn’t mind because it was exciting and what you wanted to do. You become a doctor to see patients, and get up in the night and do all the heroics. It was great fun.’ 


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