Professor Sir Neil Douglas, who has died aged 71, built an international reputation as Professor of Respiratory and Sleep Medicine at the University of Edinburgh from 1995 to 2012; he was also heavily involved in teaching and training as president of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, and the founding chairman of the Faculty of Medical Leadership and Management.
He trained as a respiratory physician and became interested in sleep apnoea, a previously under-recognised condition in which patients suffer interruption of their breathing patterns during sleep. This causes excessive daytime sleepiness and affects quality of life, cardiovascular health, and safety – in particular when driving.
Douglas investigated the causes and consequences of the syndrome, its diagnosis, and its management using Continuous Positive Airways Pressure or CPAP, which keeps the airways open using air pressure applied by a pump through a face-mask worn overnight.
CPAP has proved highly cost-effective – and is now used all over the world. Modified versions of the machines have been used in the treatment of respiratory failure as a result of Covid-19.
In 1983 Douglas established the Edinburgh Sleep Centre, bringing together the University and NHS to carry out world-leading research as well as clinical care of patients with disordered sleep.
Douglas was also active in medical politics. He held various posts in the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, culminating in him being the longest-serving president (2004-10). As chairman of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges (2009-12) he helped to sort out a national problem with the placement of junior doctors in training posts; the medical training and assessment system was widely acknowledged to be a disaster, leaving many young doctors without jobs, and posts unfilled.
He persuaded the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges to establish, in 2011, a Faculty of Medical Leadership and Management hosted by the Royal College of Physicians of London. He was the inaugural chairman, and the faculty now has 2,300 members and 160 Fellows, supporting young doctors to gain the skills to lead clinical services effectively. In this he was driven by his staunch support for the NHS.
Neil Douglas was born on May 28 1949 in Edinburgh, the son of Professor Sir Donald Douglas, a president of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, and his wife Diana. Neil attended Dundee High School and Glenalmond, before taking preclinical medicine at St Andrews University and clinical studies at Edinburgh.
He graduated with distinctions in medicine, surgery and therapeutics, and an academic career beckoned, so he went on to train under David Flenley in the Department of Respiratory Medicine in Edinburgh, concentrating on research of practical clinical relevance.
Douglas was a caring doctor who gave patients the time and care which they demanded. He was modest, approachable, and gave praise freely where it was due.
Hugely energetic, he was in great demand to lecture around the world. On one occasion he was invited to give a keynote address at an event in Australia. At the last minute he discovered that the authorities in Edinburgh wanted to close his sleep unit. Being a man of honour, he flew to Australia for the day and returned as soon as he could, successfully defending his unit.
Douglas, who was knighted in 2009, published more than 300 papers, mainly on breathing during sleep, as well as The Clinicians’ Guide to Sleep Medicine (2002).
When his schedule allowed he loved to retreat to the house which he and Sue had built on the banks of Loch Tay, gardening, walking and fishing. He regarded his family and his home as his greatest achievements.
He married, in 1977, Sue Galloway, a GP; she survives him with their son and daughter: Sandy, a pharmaceutical physician, is one of the leaders of the Oxford Covid-19 vaccine development team; Kirsty is a trainee in palliative care medicine.
Neil Douglas, born May 28 1949, died August 23 2020