Professor James Colquhoun Petrie
18 September 1941 - 31 August 2001
Professor of Clinical Pharmacology, University of Aberdeen
Co-Director, Health Services Research Unit, Aberdeen
Born in Aberdeen, Jim Petrie's early schooling was in Geneva, where his father held prominent roles with WHO, the International Refugee Organisation and the United Nations Korean Rehabilitation Agency. This background, and his early bilingual schooling, added a lifelong international interest to his subsequent career. Returning to Aberdeen in 1953, he completed his education at Robert Gordon’s College and the University of Aberdeen, where he graduated in Medicine in 1964. He represented the University in the 1st XI hockey team, served as President of the University Athletic Association and was awarded a full blue in ski-ing. He was later to continue his love of ski-ing becoming Chairman and Founding Co-Director of the Lecht Ski Company in Strathdon, Aberdeenshire, in 1970.
After house officer posts in Perth and Aberdeen, in 1968, he obtained MRCP in London, seldom attempted by Scottish doctors at that time. He was appointed Senior Lecturer in Materia Medica at the University of Aberdeen, and Honorary Consultant Physician to Grampian Health Board in 1971. His precocious talent and relentless energy helped him to establish a very active Clinical Pharmacology Unit, specialising in research on hypertension and cardiovascular drug action. This interest in optimal drug use led to developments in medical informatics and health services research that were to be major themes of his later career. During this phase he combined an active role as general physician, with those as teacher and researcher in a workload of formidable breadth and intensity. He become Professor of Clinical Pharmacology in 1984, and Head of the merged Departments of Medicine and Therapeutics in 1994.
One of his early interests was in enhancing the quality of the medical record. He was instrumental in improving the local case record and prescribing forms, recognising even then, the potential for drug adverse reactions that could arise from prescribing errors. He visited Lawrence Weed in Vermont, the then leading exponent of the problem oriented medical record, subsequently implementing this in the wards in Aberdeen, and developing it as a basis for the internationally recognised shared care system used to managed the Aberdeen Hypertension Clinic. This phase of his career was also distinguished by close collaboration with colleagues in the Pharmaceutical Industry, leading not only to numerous joint studies of emerging medicines, but also to several important projects on the epidemiology of hypertension and its complications, several major funding initiatives, and expansion of these activities into a series of very large international multicentre landmark trials.
He was a founding member of the British Hypertension Society in 1981 and quickly established a key role in that Society, having identified the poor quality of blood pressure recording that was very prevalent at that time. He was instrumental in developing standards for blood pressure measurement, and methods of evaluating new blood pressure recording instruments that were being marketed at that time. The Society continues to play a prominent role in the evaluation of new devices for home and ambulatory blood pressure, and much of this rigour originates in Jim Petrie’s early insistence of strict quality control.
His insistence on quality control extended to a wider appreciation of the need for safe and evidence-based practice both in diagnosis and treatment and this was reflected by his contributions nationally on the Foundation Board of the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Medicine, to the Committee on Safety of Medicines, where he became Co-Vice Chairman in 1999, and internationally to WHO, with whom he travelled extensively as member of its Expert Panel on Drug Policies and Management, with a particular interest in the rational use of essential drugs in the context of limited health care budgets.
It was nearer to home, however, that Jim Petrie formulated what he regarded as his main professional testament – the establishment of the Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network (SIGN) under his Chairmanship in 1993. He had the vision to see the value of formalising the assessment of the quality of available evidence, of doing so independently of governmental or commercial interest, of presenting the resulting recommendations in a structured format, and of ensuring widespread ownership of the recommendations by a broad spectrum of professionals within Scotland. He had the charisma and drive to negotiate its gestation and see it through to a successful delivery. His international perspective helped him to understand – and persuade his colleagues and collaborators – that producing guidelines which were not acceptable for the practitioners or patients using them was of little value. SIGN 1 spelled out the broad methodology, the second, published in 1996, covered venous thromboembolism and number 158 (published in 2019), the management of asthma, with a comprehensive range of clinical topics in between. The impact of these on clinical practice both in Scotland and internationally, cannot be overestimated, and is his enduring professional testament.
During his Chairmanship of SIGN, Petrie was elected President of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh in 1998, entering another highly successful phase of his career in which he represented the college with great energy and distinction both at home and overseas. Within weeks of completing his tenure as President in February 2001, whilst on a family ski-ing holiday in France, he developed symptoms of the illness that was to result in his premature death exactly six months later, depriving Scottish medicine of one of its most dynamic and effective leaders.
During his career he published over 200 scientific papers and 20 book chapters. His final publication was in April 2000, entitled “Levers for change in Medicine.” He was awarded CBE in 1996 for services to Medicine. Few individuals have been a greater lever for change than Jim Petrie himself. In previous generations, whilst knowledge and understanding of treatments was limited, recognition was duly awarded to those with the skill or good fortune to make key discoveries or observations. In the modern age, the world of medicine is replete with information and data, much of limited accuracy or reliability. Perhaps Jim Petrie’s greatest achievement has been his ability to find a way through that, to sift the wheat from the chaff, and to present the results to the medical profession in a way that can be used to deliver safer and more effective care.
Aberdeen MedChi established an annual Jim Petrie Lecture. This is now held during the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh Spring Meeting (2021).
Biography prepared from the nomination made by Prof J Webster to the University of Aberdeen 525 Alumni project.