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

As the world strives to overcome the Covid-19 pandemic, our 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 our Great North Yorkshire Sons and Daughters campaign, which celebrates 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 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.

Ten life stories will be featured in the Great North Yorkshire Sons and Daughters series, after which the public will be invited to vote to find the greatest son or daughter. Nominations can be sent to MadeInNorthYorkshire@northyorks.gov.uk

Read more about Dr Pickles and the project.