Caroline Richmond obituary
Caroline Richmond, a medical journalist who passed away at the age of 82, was taken aback by the strong backlash following her article in the New Scientist claiming that food additives were generally safe. She decided to investigate what other misconceptions people may have about potential dangers and, being a fan of vibrant colors, she playfully wrote an article for the British Medical Journal titled “Fabric Dyes: Are They Beneficial for Consumers?”
The article claimed that wearing bright clothes could have various consequences, such as a higher risk of cancer and hiding severe mental illnesses by creating a false sense of happiness. It was supposedly released by the Dye Related Allergies Bureau (DRAB), a branch of the Food Additives Research Team (FART), which the author believed would indicate the humor to readers.
The organization Action Against Allergy published the article in their newsletter with sincere intentions, and as a result, readers reached out to Richmond to discuss their own encounters with allergies to bright clothing.
Richmond was concerned and believed that the UK required an organization to combat the spread of false health information, similar to the National Council Against Health Fraud in the US. In 1988, she shared her idea for a “counter-quackery” group, titled “Why Britain needs a counter-quackery organization”, with colleagues who shared her views. This led to the first meeting of the Campaign Against Health Fraud on November 1, 1988 at the Old Bell pub in Fleet Street, London. Other attendees included Professor Michael Baum, a specialist in cancer, Professor Vincent Marks, an expert in hypoglycemia, and broadcaster Nick Ross.
During its initial years, the group, originally known as HealthWatch (1990) and later rebranded as HealthSense (2022), focused on raising awareness about unproven treatments for cancer. However, it soon expanded its efforts to also examine traditional medical practices. Richmond served on the committee for a period of time.
She was highly skilled at explaining complex medical evidence in simple terms, thanks to her experience as a medical journalist. She was a multifaceted person who enjoyed reading the Skeptic magazine and was known for her generosity, idealism, and attraction to controversial topics. While she could be tough at times, her friend Ross described her as someone not to be messed with. He believed that if someone were selling false medication to vulnerable individuals, she would fiercely confront them.
In 1989, Patrick Collard, a close acquaintance, passed away and Richmond was tasked with writing his obituary. This experience led her to focus on composing obituaries for physicians and scientists for various publications such as BMJ, the Independent, and the Guardian for many years. Richard Smith, who served as the editor of BMJ from 1991 to 2004, praised Richmond’s writing style as concise and vivid with creative language.
When she had to describe the physiologist William Keatinge, for example, meeting a bear wakening from hibernation, she summed up the situation with a Shakespeare-inspired line: “Exit Keatinge, pursued by a bear.” Describing the process, Richmond said “It’s like portrait painting. Sometimes the writer really captures the subject, which is a wonderful feeling.”
She had a particular fondness for certain subjects, such as surgeon Norman Shumway. She remembered him as “the true humble hero of heart transplantation.” She also praised Sir Douglas Black for his efforts in bringing attention to and attempting to eliminate health disparities.
Richmond did not shy away from highlighting flaws or forming opinions when presenting a well-rounded view of someone’s life. In 2003, she penned an obituary for David Horrobin, the founder of Scotia Pharmaceuticals, whom she had worked for. While acknowledging his charm and intelligence, she also noted his questionable research ethics and described him as possibly being the most deceitful seller of evening primrose oil (a remedy she believed had no real medical benefits) in his time.
The BMJ received numerous complaints and a formal grievance was filed with the Press Complaints Commission after publishing the obituary. The editor, Smith, expressed regret for any distress caused to Horrobin’s loved ones, but stood by the article, stating that their readers expect more than just simple death announcements and the publication aims to provide in-depth journalistic pieces that offer insight and evaluation of a person’s character.
Caroline Smith was born in Leicester to her Anglo-Indian father, Cedric, who worked in the civil service, and her mother Kathleen (nee Meeson), a secretary. She had an older brother, Clive. Her childhood was difficult as she struggled with her relationship with her father and did not fit in at school. Eventually, the family relocated to Kensington, London after World War II. Caroline attended Richmond County School for Girls, but was later expelled for being unpunctual, not having the correct uniform, and causing disruptions by making other girls laugh. However, she found solace in science books she discovered at the library, stating that “Facts and science became my refuge.”
At the age of 16, Caroline began working as a laboratory assistant in a teacher training college. She pursued A-levels through night school and then completed a degree in zoology at Sir John Cass College in London (which is now part of London Metropolitan University). However, her studies were interrupted due to a nervous breakdown. Despite this, she earned her BSc and went on to pursue a PhD in neuroscience at University College London. During her experiments, she noticed that some of her results were not as good as a colleague’s (whom she suspected of cheating), which ultimately led to her not completing the PhD. Instead, she began working as a freelancer for the New Scientist and also held a job at Horrobin’s publishing company in Lancaster for several years.
During the late 1980s, she took on the role of UK correspondent for the Canadian Medical Association Journal. She also made contributions to a BBC documentary on the history of the NHS and a Granada World in Action segment about unethical doctors taking advantage of individuals who believed they had allergies. Additionally, she collaborated on multiple books and co-authored Insulin Murders (2007) with Marks.
In 1976, Caroline and Peter Richmond were married, but their relationship was not a happy one and they divorced after two years. Caroline, however, chose to keep her married name. She met Jim Edgar through Guardian Soulmates in 2010 at the age of 68, and they tied the knot in 2015. Besides her work, Caroline shared that her marriage with Jim was one of the three sources of great happiness in her life (the others being her beloved cats Thisbe and Horace, and her membership at the Chelsea Arts Club).
Richmond endured poor health for an extended period. In 1992, she underwent a surgery to eliminate the tissue lining her uterus. Upon waking up, she discovered that her ovaries and uterus had been removed by surgeon Ian Fergusson, who believed he had found a cancerous lump. This came as a shock to Richmond, who described it as “being castrated”, and she filed a complaint with the General Medical Council. Although the surgeon was ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing, the case received widespread attention and prompted the British Medical Association to revise their guidelines for obtaining informed consent from patients prior to procedures.
In November of last year, Richmond was granted honorary membership to the Medical Journalists’ Association due to her contributions to HealthSense. Despite suffering from normal pressure hydrocephalus, she remained dedicated to advocating for health and other causes that were important to her. Displeased with a rose in her garden being named after “Mortimer Sackler” (involved in the Purdue Pharma controversy), she successfully convinced the RHS to change the name to “Mary Delany”, which brought her great satisfaction.
After Richmond passed away, she left behind Jim and her stepchildren, Lisa and Ian.