In 1987, medical journalist Caroline Richmond, who has died aged 82, was shocked by the outpouring of protest in response to an article in the New Scientist which said food additives were mostly harmless. Curious to test what people might otherwise believe to be harmful, and a fan of bright colors, she wrote a tongue-in-cheek article for the British Medical Journal, “Fabric dyes: are they in the consumer’s significance?”
It suggested that wearing brightly colored clothes could have a range of effects, including increasing cancer risk and masking serious psychiatric disorders by making people too cheerful. The article is believed to have been issued by the Dye Related Allergies Bureau (DRAB), a subsidiary of the Food Additives Research Team (FART), which Richmond assumed was alerting readers to the joke.
However, the charity Action Against Allergy took the piece seriously in its newsletter and readers contacted Richmond to share their experiences of glitter allergies.
This worried Richmond and convinced her that the UK needed a body to call out health misinformation – like the National Council Against Health Fraud that existed in the US. In 1988 she circulated a proposal, “Why Britain needs a counter-quackery organisation”, to like-minded colleagues, and on 1 November 1988 the first meeting of the Campaign Against Health Fraud took place in the Old Bell pub in Fleet Street, London . . Other participants included cancer specialist Professor Michael Baum, the hypoglycemia expert professor Vincent Marks and the broadcaster Nick Ross.
In its early days, the organization – which changed its name to HealthWatch (1990) and then to HealthSense (2022) – campaigned against untested cancer “cures”, but quickly expanded its scope to investigate conventional medicine. Richmond was on the committee for several years.
Her skill as a medical journalist made her adept at demystifying evidence and putting it in layman’s terms. A complex character, whose favorite magazine was the Skeptic, she was generous, idealistic and attracted to controversy. She can be tough. Ross said: “I wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of Caroline. If I were a quack pushing pills for the worried sick, she would be in there like a bulldog.”
In 1989, a friend, Patrick Collard, died and Richmond wrote his obituary. This took her career in a new direction, and she published prominent obituaries of doctors and scientists for the BMJ, the Independent and the guardian for several decades. Richard Smith, editor of the BMJ from 1991 to 2004, described Richmond’s writing as “sharp and to the point with colorful phrases”.
For example, when she had to describe the physiologist William Keatinge meeting a bear waking from hibernation, she summed up the situation with a Shakespeare-inspired line: “Leave Keatinge, pursued by a bear.” Describing the process, Richmond said: “It’s like portrait painting. Sometimes the author really captures the subject, which is a wonderful feeling.”
Some of her favorite subjects included surgeon Norman Shumway, whom she later remembered as “the real unassuming hero of heart transplantation” and Sir Douglas Blackand applauded him “for exposing health inequalities and trying to eradicate them”.
In providing a well-rounded picture of someone’s life, Richmond was not willing to gloss over shortcomings or avoid statements. In 2003 she had a obituary for the BMJ from the founder of Scotia Pharmaceuticals, David Horrobin. She worked for him and could vouch for his charm and intelligence, but said his research ethics were questionable and, as the promoter of evening primrose oil (the drug for which she said there was no disease) “he could be the biggest snake . oil seller of his age”.
The obituary caused thunderous letters to the BMJ for months and a complaint to the Press Complaints Commission. Smith apologized as BMJ editor for offending Horrobin’s family, but defended the piecesaying, “A lot of what our readers want are what I call glorified obituaries, but we want serious pieces of journalism that tell stories and do make a judgment about a character.”
She was born Caroline Smith in Leicester. Her father, Cedric, was Anglo-Indian and worked in the civil service, and her mother, Kathleen (née Meeson), was a secretary. She had an older brother, Clive. It was not an easy childhood: she did not get along with her father or fit in at school. The family moved to Kensington, London after the Second World War and Caroline went to Richmond District School for Girls, from which she was expelled, she said, for being untimely, never having the right uniform and the other girls made laugh But she came across science books in the library and said: “Facts and science became my refuge.”
At the age of 16, Caroline got a job as a lab assistant at a teaching college. She studied for A-levels at night school and then a zoology degree at Sir John Cass College in London (now part of London Metropolitan University). Her studies were interrupted by a nervous breakdown, but she nevertheless obtained her BSc and began a PhD in neuroscience at University College London. Some of the results of her experiments compared badly with a colleague’s (who she was sure was cheating) and she did not finish the PhD. Instead, she began freelancing for the New Scientist. She also worked for Horrobin in his start-up publishing company in Lancaster for several years.
In the late 1980s she became the UK correspondent for the Canadian Medical Association Journal and contributed to a BBC program on the history of the NHS and a Granada World in Action program on rogue doctors exploiting people who believed they were have allergies. She has also contributed to several books and co-wrote Insulin Murders (2007) with Marks.
In 1976, Caroline married Peter Richmond, but it was not a happy relationship and they divorced two years later, although she kept her married name. Through Guardian Soulmates, she met Jim Edgar in 2010, when she was 68, and they married in 2015. Outside of work, she said her partnership with Jim was one of the three things that gave her great happiness (the others being her cats Thisbe and Horace and her membership of the Chelsea Arts Club).
Richmond lived with ill health for many years. In 1992 she had surgery to remove the lining of the uterus and came to find that surgeon Ian Fergusson had removed her ovaries and uterus, worried that he had found a cancerous lump. she was horrified, refer to it as “a castration”, and complained to the General Medical Council. The surgeon was acquitted of misconduct but this was a high profile case and as a result the BMA strengthened their guidelines to ensure that patients give informed consent to procedures.
In November last year, Richmond was made an honorary member of the Medical Journalists Association for her work with HealthSense. She was very ill from normal pressure hydrocephalus, but she nevertheless continued to advocate on health and other issues she cared about. Unfortunately, a rose in her garden was named “Mortimer Sackler” (a key player in the Purdue Pharma Scandal) she persuaded the RHS to drop the name and it became “Mary Delany”.to her satisfaction.
Richmond is survived by Jim and her stepchildren Lisa and Ian.