Michael Jacobsen: Statistician and epidemiologist known for his work in job-related illness

Professor Michael Jacobsen
Professor Michael Jacobsen
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Michael Jacobsen, statistician, epidemiologist, born 4 May, 1933, in Hamburg, Germany. Died 28 October, 2017, in Edinburgh, aged 84.

Professor Michael Jacobsen, whose proudest professional achievement was ­helping mineworkers win a High Court battle granting compensation for work-related illnesses, has died at the age of 84.

He built his reputation as head of statistics and research and later deputy director of the Institute of Occupational Medicine in Edinburgh.

Later, he worked as a ­visiting scientist in India, the United States and Germany, and helped the ILO set international standards measuring coal workers’ lung disease.

Michael Jacobsen was born into a Jewish family in ­Hamburg, Germany, on 4 May, 1933, the youngest of four children. His father, composer and music teacher Joseph Jacobsen, after having been briefly detained by the Gestapo, fled with his family to Britain in 1939.

He grew up in London, and he got his undergraduate ­science degree at the University of London.

By 1968 he had moved to Edinburgh with his family to take up the post of head of statistics at the newly-founded Institute for Occupational Medicine (IOM). Set up by the National Coal Board, it assumed responsibility for research into the respiratory health of mineworkers.

Years later, towards the end of his career, he had to defend that research as an expert ­witness in a case mineworkers brought for work-related illnesses against the now-defunct Coal Board.

The government body representing the Coal Board tried unsuccessfully to discredit the research the Board itself had commissioned at the IOM.

Mr Justice Turner’s ­landmark 23 January, 1998, ruling for the miners opened the door to significant ­compensation for miners and their families. For Professor Jacobsen, this was a vindication of decades of work.

Fintan Hurley, the IOM’s recently retired science director paid tribute to his friend and former colleague’s ­commitment to both social change and scientific rigour. “He came from a tradition that saw science as progressive and that its independence … should never be compromised in order to fit into any political position or ‘desired’ outcome,” he said.

Professor Rob Aitken, the Institute’s current chief ­executive, said: “He made a huge contribution to IOM and its founding principles through his own values of independence, impartiality and commitment to scientific excellence.”

Professor Thomas Erren, director of the University of Cologne’s Institute Occupational Medicine, where he ­finished his career, paid ­tribute to “his profound interest in individuals and a ­profound advocacy of core principles of science”.

He added: “Michael did not only shape the conduct and interpretation of science ‘in theory’ but helped many diseased workers to benefit from his research ‘in practice’.”

Active as a young man in the Young Communist League – where he met his wife-to-be, Fay – Professor Jacobsen maintained the political ­convictions of his youth. But he was scrupulous about keeping his professional work and his political convictions separate.

Throughout his life he was sustained by his family, his passion for classical music and the countryside.

As a younger man based in Ulverston, he would think nothing of driving halfway across the Lake District to see musicians such as Sviatoslav Richter or Janet Baker.

He is survived by his wife, Fay, four children – ­Sharon, Yola, David and Jonathan – and seven grandchildren.

The funeral service will be held at Warriston Crematorium, Cloister Chapel, on Tuesday, November 14, 11.30 am. No flowers please. Donations to Doctors Without Borders/Medical Aid for Palestinians.