Our next Made in North Yorkshire feature is on Dr William Pickles, an epidemiologist who spent over fifty years of his life as the local GP in Aysgarth, Wensleydale in the Yorkshire Dales. He dedicated his life to investigating disease and epidemics, studying the science behind incubation periods of infectious diseases. His work as an epidemiologist is highly relevant to the Covid-19 outbreak we are currently facing across the world.
Born in Leeds on 6 March 1885, William Pickles attended Leeds Grammar School and subsequently studied medicine at Leeds Medical School. Once qualified in 1910, Dr Pickles worked at several GP surgeries across the North Riding, including Bedale. In 1913, Dr Pickles, with his partner GP, Dr Dean Dunbar, bought the Aysgarth practice where he looked after around 3,000 people in the village and surrounding area.
Role in the Great War
Dr Pickles served in the First World War, joining the Royal Navy as a surgeon in April 1914. He also helped to set up a local VAD scheme in Aysgarth, recruiting twenty VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurses to help support the war effort at home. VAD nurses were voluntary nurses, with no previous nursing experience, who helped to care for injured soldiers in military hospitals across the UK and Europe during the First World War. Amongst the recruited VAD nurses was Gertrude Adelaide Tunstill, whom Dr Pickles would later marry at St. Andrew’s church in Aysgarth on 5th May 1917.
More information relating to Dr Pickles’ role in World War One can be found in the biographies section of the Thoralby Through Time website, written by local resident Penny Ellis. Penny Ellis was kind enough to send us a copy of the photograph below from the Thoralby Through Time website, showing Dr Pickles with the Aysgarth VAD nurses in around 1914. The nurses highlighted with a red number are yet to be identified. If you know more about these women, please get in touch with Penny via the Thoralby Through Time website.
The nurses highlighted with a black number have been identified as follows: No. 2: Miss Elizabeth Ewbank, No. 4: Miss Barbara Alice Bell – later Mrs. Peacock, No. 6: Miss May/Mary Heseltine – later Mrs. Shepherd (USA), No. 7: Miss Ethel Johnson – later Mrs. Scott, No. 11: Mrs. Margaret Ann Dinsdale, No.13: Mrs. Annie Graham, No. 14: Mrs. Constance Emma Archer, No. 15: Miss Lily Wray, No.16: Miss Alice Scott – later Mrs. Mason, No. 17: Miss Gertrude Adelaide Tunstill – later Mrs. Pickles, No.18: Miss Kathleen North – later Mrs. Sayer No. 19: Miss Alice Ecroyd Tunstill and No. 20: Miss Madge Blades.
‘The man who enhanced medicine’
Alongside his duty as the local GP, Dr Pickles spent much of his time researching the incubation period of epidemics and the spread of disease. He recorded and analysed data for every epidemic that occurred in Aysgarth for over 20 years, including measles, influenza and jaundice outbreaks. In 1939, Dr Pickles published Epidemiology in Country Practice, a book of his medical observations which focused on a particularly severe outbreak of catarrhal jaundice in the dales in 1928-1929. Dr Pickles and his wife, Gerty, recorded data of the outbreak for over two years, and eventually concluded that the incubation period for the disease ranged from 26 to 35 days.
Epidemiology in Country Practice has been recognised as an essential source in the study of epidemiology, and promoted the idea of practical, real life research as a way of achieving medical breakthrough. Whilst some medical advice has changed and advanced since Dr Pickles’ research, his advice for preventing the spread of the common cold was ‘to keep away from other folk’, advice which is all too familiar today.
As a result of his studies, Dr Pickles became one of the leading epidemiologists of his time, travelling around the world with his wife and lecturing on his findings at medical institutes and universities across the globe. Not only did Dr Pickles travel across 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 himself. 1950s Aysgarth became known as a ‘medical Mecca’, as medics wanted to learn from the expert himself, and the village that inspired his discoveries.
In 1950, William Pickles received an honorary doctorate of science from the University of Leeds. The image below shows Dr Pickles in his gown at the ceremony. In 1953, Dr Pickles also became the first president of the Royal College of General Practitioners.
Despite his fame, Dr Pickles remained a country doctor and was once described as Britain’s friendliest GP. For locals in Wensleydale, Dr Pickles was their family doctor for generations, a dependable and familiar face for over fifty years. Dr Pickles was the doctor for local resident, Penny Ellis’ family, her grandparents, father and uncle were all patients of his. She remembers Dr Pickles being spoken of very fondly, and believes the following comment made by Dr Pickles, and now quoted in John Pemberton’s biography of Dr Will Pickles, best describes his legacy:
“And as I watched the evening train creeping up the valley with its pauses at our three stations, a quaint thought came into my head and it was that there was hardly a man, woman or child in all those villages of whom I did not know their Christian name and with whom I was not on terms of intimate friendship. My wife and I say we know most of the dogs and, indeed some of the cats.”
The photograph below taken in September 1962, shows the Pickles family celebrating Dr Pickles’ 50th year in practice in Aysgarth.
Dr Pickles went above and beyond the expected role of a GP, from setting up a local VAD scheme, to studying every local pandemic for over twenty years; his commitment and passion for helping others through medical care and medical advancement is undeniable. Dr Pickles was cherished locally, by the patients he cared for and by the wider medical community. This is made evident by the poem below, ‘This was his path’, written by poet and author Joan Pomfret in 1951.
If you would to find out more about Dr William Pickles, the collection ZP relates to Dr Pickles and his work. This includes family scrap books, Dr Pickles’ medical recordings, photographs and publications.
Local historian, Penny Ellis’ website, ‘Thoralby Through Time’ website has more information about Dr Pickles and the Wensleydale villages he cared for.
John Pemberton has also published a biography of Dr Pickles life, published in 1970 and entitled: ‘Will Pickles of Wensleydale the Life of a Country Doctor’. A copy of which is held at the North Yorkshire County Record Office as part of collection ZP.