Obituary: Walter Lutz, teacher who brought computing and statistics to the Edinburgh Medical School

Walter Lutz, teacher and researcher. Born 26 October, 1925, Died 8 April, 2020, aged 94
Walter Lutz has died at the age of 94Walter Lutz has died at the age of 94
Walter Lutz has died at the age of 94

In his quiet and unassuming way Walter Lutz played an important part in public health research programmes in his adopted Scotland and in many other countries.

Motivated by a belief that every individual matters and is deserving of respect, and that all communities deserve fair treatment, as a young man he was politically active against the apartheid regime in South Africa before applying his statistical talents in medical research programmes for the betterment of public health policy.

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Walter was born in Fürth, Germany but, due to the recession, the family moved to Brazil and then to the United State. His father, Karl, was a tailor and got a job making uniforms at the US Military Academy at West Point. The family was forced to move on, due to Karl’s political activity in attempting to unionise the workforce, this time to South Africa, where Walter studied mathematics at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and became active in the anti-apartheid movement. He joined the Communist Party at that time because it was the only political party that actively opposed the South African Government’s system of apartheid. He later resigned in protest against the Soviet Union’s occupation of Hungary.

After university he moved into the practical application of mathematics and worked as a statistician for the government for a few years before he was advised to move on because of his political activities. He then obtained a lectureship in Statistics at the University of Witwatersrand where he carried out important work. At that time there were no censuses of the township populations. He developed methods of deriving population estimates from survey data and published papers on his results with data from South Africa and Mozambique.

In 1960 he, his first wife Pearl and their two children moved to London for Walter to spend a sabbatical year, but at the end of the year he was refused re-entry to South Africa because of his political activities. He obtained lectureships in statistics at Hatfield College and at the University of Sheffield before being appointed as a Senior Lecturer in Statistics in the Department of Social Medicine, Edinburgh University, then based in the Usher Institute on Warrender Park Road.

He enjoyed teaching statistics and computing to medical students, not always an easy task, but he was able to make it interesting and entertaining for his students. He obtained the first computer for the Department at this time, a PDP8 that accepted punch tape input in machine code only.

In 1973 he founded the Medical Computing and Statistics Unit, moving across the Meadows to the Medical School buildings with another statistician, Robin Prescott, and technical staff from Social Medicine.

In the subsequent years the Unit grew in terms of research projects, staff and computing equipment. The Computer Hall in the Medical School building soon housed a large PDP11 computer as well as terminals to allow access to the university’s mainframe computers. The staff expanded with computing officers and statisticians, a statistical consultancy service and many collaborative research projects. One major study investigated risk factors for cardiovascular disease by comparing the Scottish population with populations in Sweden and Finland. Other large projects included the Edinburgh Lead Study, the results of which were a major part of the evidence for the decision to phase out the addition of tetraethyl lead to petrol.

The Unit also contributed to the establishment of the breast-screening programme in Scotland as well as a long-term cluster-randomised trial to evaluate its effectiveness. Unit staff gave support to clinicians on the design and analysis of clinical trials and on other types of medical research.

Walter continued to contribute to teaching and research, and his special talent was being able to create a happy atmosphere in the Unit where people were encouraged to work with others across disciplines and specialties. He never took himself too seriously and usually had a twinkle in his eye.

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During his time in the Unit he was seconded to the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Geneva to develop teaching materials to enable staff in poor countries to carry out medical surveys, drawing on his early experience in South Africa. This resulted in a series of six booklets on Health and Community Surveys, republished in two volumes in 1992. He visited China, Pakistan, Iran and Sri Lanka with sponsorship from WHO and the British Council, which led to international links and visitors for the Unit. When Walter retired in 1987 the Unit again became part of Community Medicine (now Public Health Sciences), where the type of work he encouraged still flourishes.

In 1973 he married Dr Mary Fulton, an epidemiologist whom he met when he came to Edinburgh and who led or participated in several research projects with Unit staff. They had a long and happy marriage, cultivating their beautiful garden and Walter’s bonsai collection.

In his retirement Walter continued his love of learning, graduating with two further degrees, an Open University degree in History and an Edinburgh University degree in German.

He is survived by Mary and his two children, Rudi and Heidi.


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