Dr Pickles outside his surgery in Aysgarth

The Dales GP who led the world on the study of epidemics

As the world strives to overcome the Covid-19 pandemic, the Made in North Yorkshire campaign celebrating the county’s greatest sons and daughters looks at the work of a Dales GP who led the study of epidemics in the last century
3 May 2020

As the world strives to overcome the Covid-19 pandemic, the Made in North Yorkshire campaign celebrating the county’s greatest sons and daughters looks at the work of a Dales GP who led the study of epidemics in the last century.

Dr William Pickles was a leading epidemiologist who spent more than 50 years as the GP in Aysgarth, Wensleydale. He dedicated his life to investigating disease and epidemics, studying the science behind incubation periods of infectious diseases.

Dr Pickles is the fourth nominee from the public in County Council’s Great North Yorkshire Sons and Daughters campaign, which draws on County Record Office archives and the work of local history groups to celebrate people who made the county what it is today.

Before his work in the Dales, in 1914 Dr Pickles served as a surgeon in the Navy during the First World War. Alongside this, he helped to set up a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) scheme in Aysgarth, recruiting 20 VAD nurses to support the war effort. Among the nurses was Gertrude Adelaide Tunstill, who Dr Pickles married at St Andrew’s Church in Aysgarth on 5 May, 1917.

His work as an epidemiologist is relevant to the Covid-19 outbreak we face today. Dr Pickles wanted to see disease in its truest form. For more than a quarter of a century, he carefully recorded observations on infectious disease in the Dales and is now seen as one of the greatest general practitioners of all time. Dr Pickles showed that the rural general practitioner had opportunities for making observations on disease that were denied other medical men.

Throughout his time in the Dales he studied every epidemic that occurred there in more than 20 years, including measles, influenza and jaundice. He published his work in 1939 in a book called Epidemiology in Country Practice. He is considered the leading epidemiologist of his time and travelled the world with his wife, lecturing on his findings at medical institutes and universities.

Not only did Dr Pickles travel around the world, but doctors also travelled far and wide to visit the tiny North Yorkshire village of Aysgarth to learn more about infectious diseases from Dr Pickles. Aysgarth in the 1950s became known as a “medical Mecca” as medics wanted to learn from the expert and the village that inspired his discoveries. His epidemiology work included being the first doctor in Britain to describe the viral infection Bornholm disease in detail, and his work on tracing measles established that its incubation period was exactly 12 days.

Despite his fame, Dr Pickles remained a country doctor and was once described as Britain’s friendliest GP. For locals in Wensleydale, Dr Pickles was their family doctor for generations, a dependable and familiar face for more than 50 years. He is still remembered today by residents.

Penny Ellis, who lives in the Dales, said: “He was my grandmother’s GP and later, after she married, he was also my grandparents’, my father’s and my uncles’ GP. He was always spoken of very fondly and held in high regard by all those I know who have spoken of him.”

Dr Pickles went above and beyond the expected role of a GP, from setting up the VAD scheme to his study of epidemics. His commitment and passion for helping others through medical care and medical advancement is undeniable.

The Leader of North Yorkshire County Council, Councillor Carl Les, said:

It is very important that we recognise people such as Dr Pickles. The work he did is so relevant as a precursor to the work being done by scientists around the globe today to combat Covid-19. It shows that people with determination can and will achieve great things, even from the smallest of villages.

Great North Yorkshire Sons and Daughters will continue to highlight those who have made this county what it is today, our heritage and history will always be something we are proud to showcase. We would welcome further nominations of people who made a difference, so if you know someone who deserves to be celebrated, please contact us.

Nominations can be sent to MadeInNorthYorkshire@northyorks.gov.uk

Ten life stories will be featured in the series, after which the public will be invited to vote to find the greatest son or daughter.

Read more about Dr William Pickles and Made in North Yorkshire at: www.northyorks.gov.uk/made-in-north-yorkshire

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