I had the great privilege of meeting Prof David Warrell yesterday over tea at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, UK. He is Emeritus Professor of Tropical Medicine at the University of Oxford, a great expert on venomous snakes and rabies, and editor of the Oxford Textbook of Medicine, which perhaps is not used as much in Singapore as Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine even during my time as a medical student. His other more prosaic job is being the international director for the Royal College of Physicians.

Professor David Warrell at the cafe in John Radcliffe Hospital.
Professor David Warrell at the cafe in John Radcliffe Hospital.

Perhaps this interview from BMJ Careers in 2005 best encapsulates the man. I particular liked his reply to the question on modernisation of medical training:


Not many know that he was actually born in Singapore, at the Singapore General Hospital, in 1939 before the war, and he retains a special fondness for Singapore perhaps because of this connection.

I met Prof Warrell in 2005 at the Gorgas Course in Clinical Tropical Medicine in Peru, where he gave remarkable lectures (full of amazing real life photographs) on rabies and snake bites, among others. He also took the most concise history I have ever witnessed from a patient who had been exposed to rabies during the clinical rounds in Lima, Peru – not a single question wasted and all asked in a precise sequence. Such clinical skills are very rare among today’s physicians, particularly with our (over)dependence on laboratory tests and imaging. His first question to me during that course in 2005 came out of left field – “What do vampire bats eat?” – and left me nonplussed for a few seconds before stammering out “blood”.

He is among what I think of as a dying breed of impeccable “old world” physicians (those that actually take a proper careful history and perform a thorough clinical examination) and academics.

We briefly discussed a wide array of topics (I was trying to keep up), including the state of Singapore’s medical training. We have, of course, shifted course from the legacy U.K.-type training system to a U.S.-style residency system, the merits of which are debatable, but only time will tell. Nonetheless, for a variety of reasons, this move is causing some concern to the Royal College.