Born 21 September 1942, died 20 April 2017
Gordon Waddell, the orthopaedic surgeon and back pain pioneer who played a seminal role in the biopsychosocial approach to understanding and managing back pain has died, age 74. Gordon was an extraordinary scientist and communicator, with an uncanny ability to synthesise complex information and present it in a way that changed how people did things. His impact has been worldwide.
It was in his clinics that Gordon realised the contemporary medical model did not adequately explain the impact that low back pain had on his patients. His tremendous capacity for careful data collection and analysis served as the foundation for a novel approach to clinical assessment to disentangle physical, psychological and behavioural aspects. This evolved into the biopsychosocial model of low back disability, for which he received the 1987 Volvo Award.
It was interesting that Gordon, as a surgeon, should be invited to join the groups that developed the early primary care guidelines on back pain in the UK, the USA, and Scandinavia. He was instrumental in presenting the evidence challenging the use of passive treatments such as bed rest, and he went on to co-author The Back Book, the respected booklet to help people with back pain avoid its disabling consequences.
Next, Gordon deliberately escaped his primary discipline and redirected his energy to the conundrum of the work-health interface. He made a major contribution to the development of occupational health guidelines for managing back pain at work, published in 2000 by the UK Faculty of Occupational Medicine, from whom he later received an Honorary Fellowship (2007). The focus of his work remained on implementing early intervention to avoid disability, and there followed a series of major policy reviews commissioned primarily by the UK Government. Predominant among these was the influential report presenting the evidence that (good) work is good for our health and wellbeing (2006). It is widely accepted that this piece of work underpins contemporary rehabilitation initiatives (in clinical, occupational, and policy realms) aimed at helping workers avoid unnecessary sickness absence and disability. In 2009 Gordon chose to retire from academic life to spend more time with his family. In typical style, he quietly waved goodbye as he left a conference podium to catch his plane back to Glasgow.
Gordon somehow found time to write his seminal book on back pain—The Back Pain Revolution. It is a sublime example of how he could communicate complex and sometimes contentious ideas. Perhaps more than any other single publication this book has changed the way back pain is treated and managed. The revolution, though, is not yet over: arguably we still tend to over-medicalize symptoms!
The influence that Gordon had on the worlds of pain, work, rehabilitation, and policy was recognised with a raft of honours in numerous countries. His was regularly consulted for advice on disability management by government departments and clinical organisations across the globe, and his characteristically spicy conference presentations will be long remembered with fondness.
Gordon was an amazing man, one with a strong work ethic, scrupulous intellectual honesty, and courteous manner, yet (perhaps surprisingly) he was somewhat shy. He can be described, in equal measures, as a tenacious researcher, visionary, and mentor who thoroughly enjoyed the altercations when pushing the boundaries of science and understanding. Despite all his professional achievements, Gordon found time for restoring a seventeenth century cottage in the Scottish Highlands, and to write a 500-year history of the glen (Highland Roots: the real story of a highland cottage, 2013). He loved hill walking, and did much thinking out on the mountains: although he was entitled to a certificate for conquering all 283 Munros (Scottish mountains over 3000 feet), he insisted it be made out in the name of the border collie who accompanied him on all his climbs! Gordon was a family man, and it is fitting that in his later years he had the opportunity to enjoy precious time with his wife Sandra, their three daughters (Carol, Joyce and Hazel), and the grandchildren.
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Main, C., Burton, K. In Memoriam: Gordon Waddell CBE, DSc MD FRCS. Eur Spine J 26, 1792–1793 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00586-017-5133-4