Dr. Noel Olsen - A tribute

Dr Noel Olsen - 1946 - 2013

Dr Noel Olsen, former Honorary Secretary of ASH and key campaigner on tobacco control, died on 2nd September 2013, aged 67. The following is a tribute by ASH’s first Director, Professor Mike Daube. 

Sometime in late 1973, a lively and immensely likeable young doctor walked into my office in the Royal College of Physicians in London. I had recently become Director of ASH and was in the early stages of the journey towards developing tobacco control campaigning in the UK. Noel Olsen as a chest physician had been the youngest consultant in the health service, but was inspired by the potential for prevention: his passion for action on tobacco arose from his own experience and interest, with further enthusiasm generated by a spell working with Sir John Crofton in Edinburgh.

Once Noel had completed an MSc in community medicine at the London School of Hygiene, his career was all about encouraging, cajoling and inspiring others to raise the profile of prevention in the health service and in the community.

He speedily became a key figure in ASH, a member of the Executive Committee, and for many years thereafter was ASH’s Honorary Secretary.

At a personal level, it is hard to overstate the debt I owe to Noel. In those early years of tobacco campaigning, he was an absolute and constant supporter, putting an enormous amount of time into his work with ASH and on tobacco control more broadly. He generated support for tobacco control amongst junior doctors’ organisations (where also played a prominent role) and in the AMA; he stimulated action amongst his colleagues in community medicine; he badgered even some of his most senior colleagues into participating in ASH’s work. He developed a rapport built on mutual respect with some of the great early medical leaders in tobacco control – particularly Charles Fletcher, John and Eileen Crofton, Keith Ball and George Godber. He would go anywhere, anytime to speak about or encourage action on tobacco and in support of ASH.

Noel would come into the office whenever possible, and we spent countless evenings and weekends planning, discussing, debating and conspiring. With a remarkable degree of diplomacy (not always Noel’s strongest point!) he encouraged me to learn about epidemiology and effectively tutored me through the early stages of that arcane discipline.

I am not sure that without Noel’s support I would have managed to get through the early years in ASH, when tobacco control was much less fashionable than it is now. He was not only a friend and colleague, but keen to help develop the kind of campaigning activities that were then new, a meticulous advisor on medical issues, a sounding board, and an almost relentless source of new ideas. I used to describe Noel as a Catherine Wheel of ideas – as he talked, he would spark more and more bright ideas – some admittedly more practical than others!

The concept of identifying mortality and morbidity attributable to smoking by electorate or local government area, then sending this information to local Members of Parliament and other relevant authorities has become a staple in tobacco control - and, indeed, now other aspects of prevention. The idea and some of the methodology originated with Noel, who was appropriately acknowledged by Ken Brotherston (alas also taken from us far too young) who put this into practice for the first time in ASH Scotland’s “The Scottish Epidemic”, with immediate impact. The ideas kept coming along with support for other new approaches. I remember crafting with Noel the first questions to be put by ASH as shareholders at tobacco company AGMs from 1973 onwards. He was also no mean wordsmith, pointing out (in words the rest of us often quoted) that “if one doctor sends a letter to their MP, they must be a crank. If two doctors send letters it looks like a conspiracy. But if three or more doctors write to their MPs, that’s the full force of public opinion”.

He didn’t always make life comfortable for others, his unquenchable enthusiasm sometimes reminiscent of Michael Pertschuk’s description of good advocates as “unabashed tellers of truth to power” who can “churn up our collective conscience and annoy us into action”. He certainly did that, over more than forty years.

We worked together on tobacco, then later also on other issues, around the country (where Noel always seemed to know the whereabouts of the best local restaurants) and overseas. As Noel’s career in community medicine developed, he maintained his interest in tobacco – as well of course as in many other areas, particularly alcohol, heart health, air quality and fuel poverty. He gave so much to ASH – and received the best of gifts in return, as it was through ASH that he met Nicky, who shared so many of his interests, as well as marriage and the two daughters of whom he was so proud.

Noel was a campaigner to the end, and that is how I will remember him. I will also remember him as a wonderfully kind, supportive and loyal friend, the finest of people who enriched the lives of those with whom he came into contact and the health of the communities he served. He would be delighted to know that an internal British American Tobacco report, following a 1980 meeting with him (described as “a somewhat one-sided conversation”), concluded that, “Dr Olsen seemed to be a remarkably able and intelligent trouble-maker”.

Mike Daube (Director, ASH 1973 – 79) 

A message board is available on the UK Health Forum website to share tributes. 
Obituary by Brian Kirby, The Guardian
- Obituary by Chris Mahony
- Obituary, The Times (£)