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A fully human medical scientist, mas maker, and player

Published: 
Wednesday, May 10, 2017
Professor David Picou:
Dr David Picou

There is something about the generation of West Indians who emerged out of the 1940s and 50s, many of whom went to university in the “mother country,” being infused with an unshakeable Caribbean identity.

Maybe having to contend with a hostile British culture, which deemed them wanting inhumanity, drove the “immigrants” to cling to what the Caribbean post slavery and indentureship had achieved, notwithstanding the difficult historical circumstances.

Similarly, the University of the West Indies campuses of the 1940s through the 1960s and 70s served as a kind of rite of passage for graduates to attain a West Indian identity that triumphed over national and even ethnic cleavages.

“I am a Caribbean Man; have always been,” says Professor David Picou, one of the most successful medical research scientists in the Caribbean. He developed a body of research work on nutritional diseases, especially those prevalent among children, that continues to serve Caribbean peoples.

“At Mona I met students from all over the Caribbean, including Derek Walcott, Slade Hopkinson, Jimmy Lee Wah and later as a member of the New World Group that included Norman Girvan, Lloyd Best, “GBeck”, George Beckford; and I was there when Walter Rodney was ‘Grounding with My Brothers’,” says Professor Picou.

His was an interest and participation in the very vibrant social dialogue of the day on Caribbean history, the economy, the social sciences and human development, and this is notwithstanding his base in the physical sciences.

The Caribbean identity of Prof Picou, born on Charlotte Street in a barrack yard now the home of Renegades, received an unplanned-for impetus from the outright racism he encountered in the 1940s in the USA, in his time there as an undergraduate student.

His true, true Trini looks, part Chinese, French Creole and African and whatever other ethnicity spliced in, must have mystified those who categorised and graded humanity in the US during the period: “I went to the back of the bus anyhow, and I became vice-president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP) group at the Long Island University in Brooklyn.

“I was there too, to celebrate Jackie Robinson, the first black man to break into Major League Baseball,” says Professor Picou.

It is from such a base that David Picou went on to study and research medical sciences and be concerned with saving the lives of babies and with being a full member of the human race.

Picou chose the field of research in paediatrics and saving the lives of babies almost as a means of saying “that our human resource is the most valuable resource we have for future liberation, we have to look after our children.”

Early in his research and clinical career at the Tropical Metabolism Research Unit (TMRU), established by the British Medical Research Council at UWI, Mona, Jamaica, Dr David Picou observed that severely undernourished babies were brought to them for treatment but died within 24 to 48 hours of arrival.

He says death came notwithstanding an increase in the quantity and quality of the nutrition of the food given to the babies on being taken into the Unit.

“I thought the mothers of these babies could not be so prescient to have brought their babies to the hospital just before they would die: I wondered, are we killing these babies in the Unit?”

That internal questioning says Professor Picou set a thought process in train: “As a result of the poor diets, the bodies of the babies had become adapted to their condition, so they preserved what little energy sources they had as the proteins in their bodies were breaking down, but allowing them to survive in that harsh environment.

“When we suddenly increased the intake of the babies, various things started happening –the infant stopped moving or crying to conserve energy. So that led us to devise a diet that was just sufficient in protein, energy, vitamins, trace elements to maintain a balance in their adapted state, and as they began recovering, we increased the calories and the proteins, and when we did, the children started to survive. We achieved great success with the method of treating the malnourished babies,” says Professor Picou.

He formalised and wrote up the regime for the treatment of malnourished babies below the age of three, and it was adopted around the Caribbean, including Cuba. Eventually the treatment regime was placed in a manual by the World Health Organisation and utilised to treat babies in Africa and other parts of the world experiencing premature deaths in malnourished babies.

To facilitate even wider reach of the treatment, a working colleague of Professor Picou, Irishman Professor Mike Golden, adapted the treatment regime into a commercial form and it “was applied to babies and adults in famine conditions in parts of Africa: it saved millions of lives and continues to do so as we speak,” says a satisfied Prof Picou.

Score one for the research work of Professor Picou and the team at the TMRU in Jamaica.

One feature of institutions established in colonial times is that they disappear after the director leaves. This did not happen when the Director of the TMRU, Professor John Waterlow, returned to the UK in 1970.

The Unit was handed over to the UWI. The MRC in London also agreed to continue funding the Unit for a period of time. The TMRU was by then internationally recognised as a leading centre of research in human nutrition.

Having taken over the Unit on the departure of Professor Waterlow, David Picou struggled against the odds to convert the Unit into a Department of the University of the West Indies, while maintaining or even increasing its research stature internationally. The TMRU remains an internationally renowned medical research centre.

One widespread and enduring consequence of the continuance of the TMRU is the MSc programme in human nutrition established by Professor Picou for professionals within the Caribbean to enhance public health nutrition programmes and to stimulate research to identify and utilise quality nutritional diets for people of the region.

Professor Picou also pioneered at his research station in Kingston the use of stable isotopes in human experimentation. He developed the use of the stable isotope N15 in the study of protein metabolism in infants. This involved the use of the mass spectrometer, an instrument to detect and measure substances labelled with N15t. The paper which Professor Picou wrote on the measurement of protein turnover in infants is now a “citation classic.” This methodology has been used to measure how the body is utilising protein in people recovering from surgery and in premature infants.

“We have postulated that if we could feed these patients protein right after the operation then they will not go into negative balance and that will reduce the recovery period of the patient.”

In his work in Jamaica of the 1970s, Professor Picou contributed significantly to the upgrade of Places of Safety for children. After a tour of such places established and managed by the state, Professor Picou reported to then social services minister, Douglas Manley, on the unhealthy condition in which children, taken from their parents’ homes, were put into the Places of Safety.

One hundred recommendations to enhance the health of the children were made to the minister, among them to shut down the facilities and re-establish new homes on higher standards of care.

The recommendations would have saved thousands of lives and contributed to greater levels of public health care for children.

T&T’s turn came to receive the benefits of the scientific medical training, research and experience of its own, David Picou. He arrived home in 1978 after his long learning and working sojourns in the USA, England and Jamaica.

Coincidentally, the government of the day and its new found oil wealth and a prime minister in Dr Eric Williams interested in upgrading the health care facilities and care at public hospitals appointed Professor Picou as chairman of the Task Force to plan and implement the Mt Hope Medical Complex in consultation with the UWI.

Among other things, Professor Picou utilised the opportunity to introduce a new method of teaching medical sciences in an institution in which academic staff could also see and admit private patients and conduct research all in one location.

“It was a glorious time; I thought I accomplished what I was asked to do, partly anyway, not the implementing part but getting the buildings done. We had foreign visitors who came to see this unique facility.

“The fact is that there is one basic philosophy behind medicine: whether you are doing veterinary, dentistry or human medicine, there is one medicine; they are all grounded on a scientific basis and that could be taught to all students at the basic level. It was unique in the Caribbean, never anything like this before,” says Professor Picou.

What is significant about the achievements of the boy from the barrack yard on Charlotte St, his other homes on Edward and Borde Streets, and at Tranquillity and Queen’s Royal College where he got his basic education, is that, in his own words, “...my environment never placed any bounds on my ability to rise. I played mas, Mavis Clown in an elaborate clown costume, and when I returned to Trinidad in the 1970s, thereafter I made and played mas for 40 years,” says Prof Picou.

His enduring legacy is in his efforts to spread the research ethic in medical sciences around the Caribbean; but, he says, “much more needs to be done and governments have to invest more in that research.”

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