Inspiring People: Doug Altman

Doug Altman

Today whilst scrolling mindlessly through Twitter I saw a post that began, “So sorry to hear of Doug Altman’s passing.” At first I didn’t really believe it – it was like the first time someone told me that Michael Jackson or David Bowie had died, I didn’t think it was real. I scrolled a bit more and saw more posts echoing the same sentiment. Today, we lost Doug Altman.

I was sat in my Mum’s kitchen when I found out. I told her and she asked who Doug Altman was, and I found it genuinely difficult to put into words, ‘Er.. he, well he’s a statistician, a really good one. A lot of the work that I do has his ideas entrenched in it. He’s a big deal, medical-research-wise.’ Shortly after that conversation I left my Mum’s to drive back to my home in Aberdeen. The journey took about 4 and a half hours, and between podcasts and Jon Ronson’s audiobook of ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed‘, I was thinking about Doug Altman and how I wished more people knew who he was. Clearly, in the medical research world we know that we’ve lost a giant, but there are people in other areas of research and in other walks of life that haven’t yet had the joy of discovering Doug’s work. So, Doug Altman is my first entry in a new blog post series called ‘Inspiring People’, where I’ll be sharing details of the people that inspire me – whether in my working life or in my personal life.

So, where do I start with someone like this?

According to Wikipedia..

Douglas Altman FMedSci (born London, UK, 12 July 1948) was an English statistician best known for his work on improving the reliability and reporting of medical research and for highly cited papers on statistical methodology. He is professor of statistics in medicine at the University of Oxford, founder and Director of Centre for Statistics in Medicine and Cancer Research UK Medical Statistics Group, and co-founder of the international EQUATOR Network for health research reliability.

Why did he inspire me?

On the first day on my PhD, my supervisor furnished me with a large pile of papers, links and books to get my teeth into. He drew particular attention to the Testing Treatments book, and a paper titled ‘The scandal of poor medical research‘. I read that paper multiple times, I’ve cited it multiple times in my thesis, and it’s something that I frequently refer to when constructing arguments about the work that I do. Medical research can be done better, and my PhD is taking a tiny, tiny piece of the medical research landscape, and working to improve it. ‘The scandal of poor medical research’ hasn’t just inspired me, it was voted as the paper that the British Medical Journal should be most proud of publishing.

He wasn’t only a ridiculously intelligent man and a brilliant writer, he was a brilliant colleague. I’ve never worked directly with Doug Altman, but everything I’ve heard about him suggests that he was a fantastic person to work with; down to Earth, funny, sarcastic, kind and supportive.

My first big conference presentation was at the Evidence Live conference in 2016. I was presenting work from the Trial Forge group (the wider group that my PhD is set within), but it wasn’t entirely my work, so I was pretty nervous. Before I got up to the lectern I saw Doug Altman. I knew it was Doug Altman, I knew he was about to watch me give my first ever conference presentation, and my nerves escalated. A few minutes into the presentation I remember looking out into the audience and seeing Doug laugh at one of my ‘medical research is not doing it’s job’ related jokes (I know, major nerd alert), after he stopped laughing I saw him nodding along with my points. That tiny interaction is something he likely didn’t even note, but it boosted my confidence more than anything else had when it came to giving presentations. I still think about it now when I get nervous before a talk, I tell myself ‘well if Doug Altman got my joke and liked what I had to say, I must be doing something right’.

I won’t ramble on any more, I’ll just leave with you a list of further reading so you can find out about Doug’s ideas from the man himself.

Doug Altman’s Google Scholar Profile – detailing the papers that have so far earned him 360,483 citations
Practical Statistics for Medical Research (book)
Research Methods for Postgraduates (book)
Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence
Evaluating non-randomised intervention studies
Methodological issues in the design and analysis of randomised trials
Importance of the distinction between quality of methodology and quality of reporting
Better reporting of interventions: template for intervention description and replication (TIDieR) checklist and guide
A history of the evolution of guidelines for reporting medical research: the long road to the EQUATOR Network
The COMET initiative database: progress and activities update (2014)

Doug Altman – Scandal of Poor Medical Research (filmed at Evidence Live 2017 – I blogged about Doug’s talks at that conference too, see here and here)

We’ve lost a brilliant, inspiring mind today.
In the words of NDORMS (the Nuffield Department of Orthopaedics, Rheumatology and Musculoskeletal Sciences where Doug worked), ‘Thank you, Doug, for all you gave to research and the world.’

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