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William Michael Wardell (6096), aged 79

25 Nov 2020

Bill Wardell was a distinguished medical scientist in pharmaceutical research and drug development. He was solely responsible for major changes in the approval of new medicines, particularly in the USA and undoubtedly responsible for saving the lives of thousands of people.

His early years were spent in New Zealand where he loved the outdoors, experimenting with chemicals in the backyard shed, and later, mountaineering. He was clearly the model for the boy hero of his mother’s successful children’s mystery series. He attended Christ’s College where he was encouraged and inspired by its Headmaster, Brasenose alumnus Reg Hornsby, to work towards admission to Oxford University. Bill did a pre-medical course in Dunedin and won a Commonwealth Medical Scholarship to Brasenose at Oxford University where he became a medical student. 

Bill was quickly recognised as highly academic and organised. For example, he recorded the things he needed to learn on cards, studying them even at the swimming pool – a clear indication of his talent at handling data. (He went on to spend the most number of years in statu pupillari at Brasenose of any graduate since WWII, earning a BSc/MA; BM, BCh; DPhil; and DM)

Outside his studies he played sport, and memorably became Secretary of the Phoenix Common Room, which had largely been the club for rather upper class Englishmen. It morphed into a club populated by Rhodes Scholars such as Bob O’Neill and other ‘colonials’. I have a vivid memory of Bill performing a haka on the dining table!

After taking finals and before doing the clinical portion of his medical degree, Bill interposed doing a DPhil. in the Pharmacology Department supervised by Bill Paton. During his research years, he and I shared a flat in Norham Gardens along with George Alberti of Balliol, later Sir George Alberti and President of the Royal College of Physicians who was also interposing a DPhil. It was during this time that we organised a skiing trip, and much more significantly, he met Dorothy, the American who was to become his future wife.

The clinical course involved Bill’s doing house jobs and practising as a locum in England. He then took Dorothy to New Zealand to see his birthplace, working as a doctor and teaching at the University of Otago. There he obtained a Merck Fellowship in Clinical Pharmacology to the distinguished and pioneering Pharmacology Department at the University of Rochester where he quickly advanced to become a professor and created a new Center for the Study of Drug Development (now at Tufts). He retained involvement with patients and prescribing drugs for their treatment. This was a life changing period. Having practised both in the UK and New Zealand, he was aware of drugs which could cure sick patients, but they were not approved in the US by the FDA, even if they had been available and used for many years without problems, overseas.

Many people would just have moaned about this, but Bill sought out a National Science Foundation grant to look into it and collected quantified data which showed that the FDA was dilatory in giving approvals. He showed, for example, that a heart drug already used for 10 years in the UK could have saved the lives of more US men in a year than had been killed in accidents.

The issue became a campaign with Bill testifying before the House and Senate earning him the nickname “Dr Drug Lag” and some hostility from politicians, but praise from the national media and from patients. That campaign changed the way the FDA worked, enabling the agency to consider efficacy in addition to safety, make speedier approvals, and incorporate more post approval surveillance. These results proved positive for the pharmaceutical industry and it encouraged his sideline in pharma-economics. His next major issue was the length of time drug research takes with the result that the profitable period before patents run out proved to be very short, thus discouraging much research. He advocated a system of possible patent extensions, which were popular with big pharmaceutical companies but potentially devastating to some of the generic companies. Opposition was supported by Ralph Nader, but even worse, much pressure was put on Bill – even a death threat to him and his children. Offers came in from the pharma industry where Bill had notable success introducing novel therapeutics and also the world’s largest selling drug ever, Lipitor.

When the biotech industry began to blossom, he moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts to head a company engineering proteins for the industry. He later became medical SVP for a company conducting clinical trials (CRO) and heading its drug development sciences institute.

In his later years he and Dorothy moved to Florida where he enjoyed daily swims and beach walks and consulted nationally on drug development and approval.

In his last years he suffered from cancer and then sudden-onset dementia. He left not only an adoring family and many close friends, but also untold hundreds of thousands of people who are unaware that they are only alive thanks to Bill. 

By Professor Graham Richards CBE FRS, Fellow Emeritus of Brasenose. Originally published in The Brazen Nose.

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