On St Andrews Day 2015 (Monday 30th November), Professor Sheila M. Bird OBE FRSE left the MRC Biostatistics Unit (BSU), following 35 years of dedicated scientific service to the MRC.
Sheila joined the BSU in 1980 from a Lectureship in Statistics at Aberdeen University and rose to become Programme Leader in 1996 after five years’ statistical leadership of the MRC Biostatistical Initiative in support of AIDS/HIV studies in Scotland (MRC-BIAS). Sheila has made a major impact on a wide range of challenging areas through her creative application of statistical principles, in particular to improve clinical research, epidemiological understanding, as well as societal practices. Her research spans across transplantation, paediatrics, epidemics (HIV, Hepatitis C, vCJD, drugs-related deaths), prisoners' mortality and military fatality rates.
Sheila has had numerous research highlights during her career with the MRC. She designed the UK’s first confidential audit of all deaths in intensive care units which revealed that relatives’ refusal rate, not doctors’ failure to ask about organ donation, was the fundamental problem. From 1990 to 1995, she led MRC-BIAS in Scotland, which included projection of Scotland’s cases of severe immunodeficiency. Subsequently, Sheila’s research team used record-linkage to quantify the very high risk of drugs-related death soon after prison-release, which the N-ALIVE trial and Scotland’s National Naloxone Policy seek to reduce. With deep concern for the health of prisoners, formidable determination and aided by Edinburgh Prison’s enlightened governor, she and her late husband Dr A. Graham Bird had persuaded authorities to allow them to conduct unique studies within prisons. From 1991-96, high-volunteer-rate Willing Anonymous HIV/HCV Salivary (WASH) surveillance studies in prisons revealed that a third of Scotland’s adult male prisoners had a history of injection drug use and half of these injector-inmates had injected inside prison.
Research achievements continued with a series of record-linkage studies in Scotland, along with Hutchinson, Merrall and Goldberg, on the late sequelae of Hepatitis C virus infection and, for those who have ever injected, on the high risk of drugs-related death after any hospital-discharge. Hutchinson’s doctoral thesis underpinned Scotland’s Hepatitis C Action Plans and focused HCV testing on older former injectors.
Sheila’s role as an MRC-scientist includes substantive contributions to the public understanding of statistics. She has served on four Royal Statistical Society Working Parties. The first on Official Statistics (Counting with Confidence) led to the UK’s Statistics Act, the second was on Statistics and Statisticians in Drug Regulation; she chaired the Working Party on Performance Monitoring in the Public Services, and proposed the fourth on Statistical Issues in First-in-Man Studies. Sheila served as a Medicines Commissioner and then as first statistician on the NICE Appraisal Committee.
During 2005 to 2009, Sheila was the Royal Statistical Society's (RSS) vice-president for external affairs and introduced both the RSS's statistical seminars for journalists and awards for statistical excellence in journalism, for which, in 2010, she was awarded the RSS's Chambers Medal.
Sheila’s achievements have been recognised through various honours and awards. She is the first statistician to have been awarded four medals by the Royal Statistical Society (Guy Medal in bronze in 1989, Austin Bradford Hill in 2000, and Chambers in 2010, Howard Medal in 2015 – named after the 18th century prison reformer, John Howard). In 2011, Sheila was awarded an OBE for her services to social science, and in 2012 was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. The award of the Howard Medal recognised Sheila’s development and application of methods for studying prisoners’ welfare, and her advocacy of good practice in social statistics. Most recent of these methods has been the MRC-funded prison-based N-ALIVE pilot Trial, with Professors Max Parmar (MRC Clinical Trials Unit at UCL) and John Strang (National Addiction Centre), in which more prisoners have been randomized than in any other prison-based trial in Europe.
To mark Sheila’s leaving BSU and to celebrate a remarkable career in research, the Unit organised a symposium for Sheila, with past and present colleagues and collaborators speaking about shared discoveries and new insights. This was a wonderful occasion for all involved, and most particularly for Sheila herself.
To read the fascinating 'Working Life' article on Sheila published in MRC Insight, click here.