Passing of David Sowby, 6th Scientific Secretary of ICRP


David Sowby at a Main Commission meeting in Geneva 1974

David Sowby, BA MD FSRP 1926-2014

(Francis) David Sowby died peacefully on Wednesday 12 March 2014. He was born in the Lake District of England on 8 December 1926, the son of an Anglican clergyman. Two years later, the family moved to Oxford, an then in 1934 to Dublin. After his school years there, David obtained his BA in Arts (1944) and started his medical training at Trinity College Dublin. In 1949 the Sowby family moved to Toronto, and David completed his final two years of training at the University of Toronto Medical School, graduating as an MD in 1951. Having developed an interest in public health issues as a medical student, in 1953 he took up employment at the Radiation Protection Section of the Occupational Health Division at the Canadian Department of National Health and Welfare. This would profoundly influence his entire career; it led to his selection in 1956 as a member of the then ICRP Committee V (Handling of radioactive substances and disposal of radioactive waste).

David immediately became popular for his wittiness and cheerful ways, and his conscientious work qualified him for a re-election for the next, 1959-62, term. By 1962, he had so proven his worth to ICRP that when the Chairman, Rolf Sievert, and the Scientific Secretary, Bo Lindell, in Sweden decided to retire from those posts, David was invited to apply for the post as Scientific Secretary, which was now for the first time to be a full-time paid position.

The new Chairman was to be Sir Edward (‘Bill’) Pochin in London, and he wanted the Secretary near at hand for easy consultation. David quite liked the idea of being based in England and tentatively agreed to a three-year assignment. Little did they all know that this ‘temporary’ arrangement would become rather permanent. He stayed in the service of ICRP until his retirement as an Old Age Pensioner in 1985.

During his 24 years as the Scientific Secretary of ICRP, and thus in effect its executive director, he developed all the necessary administrative routines (but none that were not called for!). He improved the base of funding bodies contributing to the financing of ICRP, and considerably extended the number of formal links with UN, intergovernmental, and other organisations. He participated very actively in making ICRP a truly international organisation and was personally much involved in engaging the People’s Republic of China in the Commission’s work. During his tenure, ICRP created its own journal, the Annals of the ICRP.

David was, of course, involved in the scientific projects of ICRP, and contributed much to the drafting of many reports, not least the 1977 Recommendations of ICRP (Publication 26, the basis of the System of Radiological Protection still in place today in legislation around the world). He was also a founder member of both the Health Physics Society, HPS, and the Society for Radiological Protection, SRP.

In his later years David returned to Dublin, and maintained his interest in radiation matters through his association with the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland. A regular and inquisitive attendee at RPII seminars, and an active participant in debates on all aspects of radiological protection and risks, David did not hesitate to speak his mind. He was a founding member of BENE, an organisation promoting nuclear energy in Ireland – which currently has a legislative ban on nuclear power generation. David also participated in the wider cultural life of Dublin and contributed material particularly of an historical nature to the national radio. But most intellectually satisfying of all to him was his translation into English of two classics of Irish literature, ‘The Midnight Court’ and ‘The Islander’.

His encyclopaedic knowledge of history, arts, languages, and other non-medical topics was amazing (and sometimes, as with his fascination with Judaism, surprising). Always having a twinkle in his eye, he loved unusual, obscure, and outright preposterous words and collected them for use at precisely the right moment. David would probably have objected, but secretly enjoyed it, if one were to apply to him the original dedication of ‘The Islander’, ní beidh a leithéid arís ann: there will not be his like again.

David is survived by his son Michael Sowby and granddaughter Millie Rose Sowby.

A fuller obituary will be published in the Journal of Radiological Protection.

- Bo Lindell, Mike O’Riordan, Jack Valentin