Obituary: David Tennent Baird (1935–2022)

Published:August 04, 2022DOI:
      David Baird CBE, BA, MBChB, DSc, FRCOG, FRCP Edin, FRSE died on 12th February 2022 at the age of 86. He was a giant in the field, the most eminent British reproductive endocrinologist of his generation. He had an unparalleled reputation internationally as a leader in research in women's health. But perhaps even more important was his influence on the host of individuals who were privileged to train and work with him over 40 years. He also recognised the need for public education, debate and support for the changes in healthcare, particularly for women, that were his life's work.
      David was born in Glasgow, but the family moved to Aberdeen where his father, Dugald, was Regius Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University. David studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, then completed his clinical studies at the University of Edinburgh. His early clinical training was in both endocrinology and obstetrics and gynaecology, in London and Edinburgh, providing a robust clinical basis for his subsequent career.
      During a Fellowship at the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology in Shrewsbury Massachusetts with James Tait (who with his wife Sylvia had recently discovered aldosterone), he studied ovarian steroid secretion. He recognised the importance of steroid prehormones, and contributed to the development of the first chemical assay for oestradiol. He also identified essential roles for prostaglandins in reproduction, notably the role of uterine PGF2α in luteolysis. These findings underpin now routine clinical treatments and are cornerstones in livestock breeding. He subsequently returned to Edinburgh and in 1970 was promoted to Senior Lecturer and Consultant at the Simpson Memorial Maternity Pavilion and the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. It was at this time that his vision of the added value of scientists working alongside clinicians and close to patients led to the establishment, in 1972, of the University of Edinburgh Centre for Reproductive Biology, creating a model that became the gold standard for such research institutes worldwide. How many times have you heard the phrase ‘bench to bedside’: this is where it was developed. He was Deputy Director of the MRC Reproductive Biology Unit from its inception in 1972 until 1977 when he was appointed Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Edinburgh University and from 1985 until his retirement in 2000, MRC Clinical Research Professor of Reproductive Endocrinology.
      He developed innumerable international collaborations which, together with his past trainees, have spread his influence to every corner of the globe. His numerous scientific and clinical contributions have had a huge impact on women's healthcare, through his scientific publications and engagement with government, the medical profession and the public in the ethical and scientific debates surrounding these fundamental scientific advances.
      David also understood the need to work with industry to influence from the inside new drug development or to try to fill a knowledge gap. He was a valued and at times a critical commentator on numerous pharmaceutical development advisory boards, e.g., investigating the role of LH in modulating the size of the follicular cohort, introducing a long-acting FSH to clinical practice, the potential application of different recombinant FSH isoforms to mimic the natural cycle more closely, as well as identifying the active (en) isomer of clomiphene. We know these as central to our specialty, but someone had to first ask those questions and do the research, and that person was David Baird.
      His contributions to the understanding of the regulation of ovarian follicle development and selection, and of implantation and early pregnancy development continue to provide the bedrock of our knowledge of reproductive biology. They underpin our daily clinical practice, for every woman starting ovarian stimulation or administered a prostaglandin during pregnancy. These contributions were recognised by awards from many scientific societies, and he was created Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2000.
      Throughout his career he recognised the importance of robust animal models to understand human reproductive biology and to translate knowledge generated into clinical practice. His active participation during the 1970s in the British Society for Reproduction and Fertility (SRF), which was at that time at the forefront of shaping our knowledge base in reproductive biology, convinced one of us (CH) to pursue a career in the emerging field of human IVF.
      His inquisitive mind led to the pioneering development of transplanting the ovary to the animal's neck, hence allowing repeated direct sampling of hormone production and leading to major developments in understanding the regulation and function of the ovary, including the impact of intraovarian factors on follicle number and oocyte quality. Also using the sheep, he developed cryopreservation of ovarian tissue and demonstrated the retention of its gamete- and hormone-producing capacities. This pivotal contribution led to the rapid development of female fertility preservation which has become an established field of clinical practice worldwide and has transformed the lives of young cancer survivors.
      His father Dugald had advocated for the ‘fifth freedom’, from excess fertility. David was passionate about this, and in 1995 he led the establishment at the University of Edinburgh of the Contraceptive Development Network. With collaborations in Africa and China and funding from the MRC, this network tested novel approaches to contraception, including hormonal methods for men. David's recognition of the importance of progesterone receptor antagonism led to pioneering clinical studies developing mifepristone and subsequent related drugs for safe medical abortion and both emergency and daily contraception. Continuing his legacy (and indeed that of his father), the current pandemic has seen further developments in making medical abortion more under the control of the woman herself.
      David was a life-long friend and supporter to very many of us in the field. His encyclopaedic knowledge was generously shared, as was his deep-seated passion for the great Scottish and Alpine outdoors. Many a reproductive conundrum were mulled over during a high mountain lunch stop eating French cheese and baguette whilst looking out across the Glacier d'Argentière to the Haute Route beyond. He could, however, be quite intimidating: few speakers were immune to a moment of trepidation on seeing his distinctive frame rise from the audience to ask what was invariably a penetrating question.
      An exceptional man, he will be greatly missed. Our thoughts and sincere condolences are with his wife Anna, and all of David's family.