A photo of Joan Austoker

Dr Joan Austoker passed away in January 2010

At an expert meeting on 18 January 2010, colleagues at Cancer Research UK were privileged to hear Dr Joan Austoker present her latest research. The work provided the usual clear and surprising insights that we’d come to depend on from Joan and her team.

And though these colleagues could not have known it, they were especially fortunate to share this precious time with Joan, as she died suddenly the next day.

On Monday, we joined family, friends and colleagues in Oxford to bid our last farewell to Joan and pay tribute to her life and work. We heard tales about Joan’s early life in South Africa and her exceptional talents as scholar and sportswoman. A common theme throughout the stories was Joan’s confidence in her knowledge, and her insistence that she was right.

She put these attributes to effective use throughout her work, reviewing the evidence, highlighting areas of uncertainty and using thorough research methods to illuminate matters. The conclusions were not always popular: Joan’s battles over many years with the advocates of breast self-examination bear witness to this.

And her insistence that a cancer awareness leaflet should not be written without a robust knowledge of what people understood, and of what they did and did not want to know, presented a challenge to many of us working in the field of information.

Joan began her research career as a molecular biologist at University College, where she studied for her PhD and published several papers. But her interests led her in a different direction – in 1981 she gained an MA with distinction in Science and Health Education and went on to work as a research fellow at the Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine in Oxford.

But her career really took off when she moved into public health and primary care. By 1991 Joan had established the CRC Primary Care Education Research Group at the university, with significant support from Cancer Research UK (then Cancer Research Campaign).

The group’s work was grounded in the production of evidence-based materials for primary care and the public, and its major focus was on cancer screening and early diagnosis of cancer.

Joan’s passion for promoting evidence-based education and information, and to listening to what patients and ordinary people really want, was second to none. It was thanks to Joan that ‘breast awareness‘ became established policy – not just in the UK but in many other countries too. She played a key role in providing health professionals in primary care with the information they needed to support the screening programmes, and to deliver the ‘prostate cancer risk management programme‘.

Joan worked closely with the National Cancer Screening Programmes to ensure their information and training was the most effective possible. She was a key figure in establishing the current policy focus on cancer prevention and early detection. So it is heartening that Joan saw the birth of the National Awareness and Early Diagnosis Initiative (NAEDI), which represents the culmination of all she advocated for throughout her career.

Often in poor health, she continued working at an amazing pace. Joan also faced many obstacles besides her health, always with cheerful perseverance. Jean King has fond memories of her sitting in her bright office with its colourful fabrics and paintings, discussing her plans for new avenues of research. These were always geared to providing better advice and services, so that people could do more to protect themselves from cancer.

NAEDI and the academic rigour that Joan brought to a field not well understood by traditional scientists will be her lasting legacy, along with the many capable social scientists who trained under her.

Joan was still advocating at the forefront of policy, this time on how much ‘informed choice ‘ people really want, the day before she passed away. She continued to create value right to the end of a life well lived – but sadly cut short.

Joan will be greatly missed.

Lesley & Jean

Lesley Walker is Cancer Research UK’s Director of Cancer Information

Jean King is Cancer Research UK’s Director of Tobacco Control