Emeritus Professor Geoffrey Malcolm Hasting Waites, 1928-2005
Inspiring scientist of male fertility
David J. Handelsman
With the recent death of Geoff Waites, after complications from neurosurgery for a cranial aneurysm, the world lost a greatly loved and admired scientist. He was an exceptional leader who made lasting contributions to the field of male reproductive health, medicine and biology.
While he made important discoveries in reproductive science, Waites's enduring public achievements were at the World Health Organisation's human reproduction program as the manager of its male taskforce.
During this period of great creative energy encased within a creaking but well-meaning bureaucracy, his worldly wise idealism, combined with a mastery of reproductive science, allowed him to meld the best of applied science into practical means for improving people's lives.
Waites described himself as a reproductive physiologist. His scientific career coincided with one of the greatest achievements of 20th century applied science - the development of practical and effective hormonal contraception.
Seeing how this brilliant invention reshaped modern civilisation by freeing women to participate more fully in society, he naturally gravitated to applying his own scientific expertise to male contraception. He pursued this goal through many pathways, always making creative, practical and durable contributions.
When a hormonal male contraceptive finally emerges as a practical reality, that overdue achievement will owe a great debt to Waites.
During the different stages of his research career, he was among the major contributors to modern understanding of the physiology of the testis, as well as being among the pioneers of epididymal (spermal duct) physiology, a lasting scientific passion.
Among his most proud personal achievements was the discovery of a class of chemicals that were orally active spermicides, in effect the first non-hormonal male contraceptive.
While these proved unsuitable for commercialisation, his discovery remains an active lead in pharmaceutical research and development. Through his career at WHO and subsequently, Waites fostered development of male contraceptive methods, both old and new. Among the major achievements was his pioneering of WHO's multi-centre male contraceptive efficacy studies, a formidable undertaking involving 16 research centres in 10 countries.
Under his inspired guidance, numerous centres in developing countries, notably China and Indonesia, developed the expertise and confidence to undertake complementary and equally challenging studies. To sceptics who thought this too ambitious, Waites characteristically chose not to argue but to reply with success. He never lacked faith in the goodwill of scientists freed to let their hearts follow their minds in using the best science to advance human welfare.
Waites edited many editions of the WHO semen manual, which he turned into the still-accepted benchmark for all laboratories worldwide as well as WHO's most successful publication.
Waites was born in in Lincoln, Britain. After taking first-class class honours in science at the University of Birmingham, he obtained a scholarship to Cambridge University where he was awarded an MA (1951), PhD (1956) and later ScD (1980).
Following his PhD, he began a research career working in British (ARC Babraham), French (INRA) and Australian (CSIRO) governmental research institutes. He transferred to an academic career as associate professor in physiology at the University of Sydney (1965-69) and then as professor and chairman of physiology and biochemistry and later dean at the University of Reading, Britain (1969-1985).
His time at CSIRO led to a fruitful collaboration with Brian Setchell, which resulted in many classical observations fundamental to the modern understanding of male reproductive function. The work was intense and often involved long hours. On one occasion, Waites was sitting at his desk behind the door writing up an experiment at the end of a long day when the lab was otherwise deserted, two cleaners arrived. One was heard to exclaim "Oh, Jesus Christ!" while the other replied, "Shush, he's behind the door". Waites subsequently claimed this had given him divine status.
Waites visited Geneva, where WHO is based, in 1983, first as a temporary consultant, but soon the founding director of WHO's human reproduction program, Dr Alex Kessler, wisely recruited him as a staff member. Waites remained for 11 years until the stipulated retirement date could no longer be avoided. Waites was then called to another distinguished role, as the president of the International Society of Andrology (science of male repoductive health and biology), vaulting over the ordinary line of succession. He took up this role enthusiastically which, as a committed internationalist, allowed him to continue travelling widely. He welcomed the chance to bring andrology expertise to all corners of the globe while he delighted in meeting people from unfamiliar cultures.
After this retirement, he and his wife, Doreen, divided their time between France and Australia, where their family had grown up.
Among other distinctions, he was appointed a fellow of the Institute of Biology (1974) and emeritus professor at the University of Reading (1985). He was also awarded the Distinguished Andrologist by the American Society for Andrology, its highest commendation, a rare honour for a non-American.
Waites was a warm and friendly person who loved people and was deeply concerned for their welfare as individuals rather than as an abstraction. In his amusing and self-deprecating way he could charm almost anyone. When his angular figure loped into view, in his trademark rumpled camel-coloured suit, his cheeky grin barely suppressing some funny story, one could expect to be propelled ever so gently into some new and unexpected direction to play a part in one of his latest enthusiasms that always seemed to balance fun with high-minded doing good.
He had a truly enormous circle of colleagues from all over the world, but especially in Europe, Australia, China and Indonesia, who regarded him with warm affection and who cared very deeply for him. Among the most remarkable things was how much he could achieve by his goodwill while avoiding cultivating enemies. He was an inspired leader who managed to lead from below and behind rather than impose views and dictates from above.
Waites had a life-long commitment to his students and many close colleagues, staying in touch, always curious and proud about their progress in the world.
He abhorred pretence and unfairness and, although an agile administrator of science with long experience of bureaucracies, he was impatient only with those suffering from an occupational ailment that he called terminal functionnaire's disease.
Waites was a delightfully entertaining companion with the ability to find wry humour and comic absurdity in every situation. He was a superb raconteur with a seemingly bottomless supply of stories, mostly based on his experiences.
He often told the story that, when he was a young research student, the technique for measuring blood flow involved a catheter connected to a reservoir topped by a fine-rubber diaphragm. The best rubber for this purpose was from a condom. Sent to a pharmacy to get a large quantity of condoms, he was asked whether he wanted the plain or teat-ended variety. Waites replied, to the astonishment of the young woman serving, that it did not matter as they cut off the end before they used them. When she had recovered from that, he asked for a receipt.
Waites loved to subvert pomp with a mock seriousness. Once on a visit to a Middle Eastern country as president of the International Society of Andrology, he was introduced formally as "your excellency". Afterwards, he enjoyed his colleagues' private use of this honorific, particularly after his term had expired when he insisted on being called "your ex-excellency".
While an avid sportsman in his youth, a champion hurdler and fine cricketer, in later life Waites was prone to follow Churchill's advice that when he felt the impulse to exercise, he lay down until the urge had passed safely. The only exception was when he and Doreen would walk their dog, Lucy, in the Jura hills behind his home in St Jean de Gonville in France.
They were the happiest of couples and great company. Their many friends were full of admiration over Waites's gentle and devoted care of Doreen during her distressing final illness.
While her death in Sydney in 2001 plunged him into private loss and loneliness, he never burdened those around him with his grief. Characteristically, he commemorated her by founding a series of primary schools in rural Ethiopia - his last major project, which attracted his usual loving care at the level of both broad vision and practical concern for detail.
As a rational scientist, Waites would have agreed that even the most sensitive scientific tests would never detect a trace of conventional religious belief in him. But he cared deeply for others and his profound but informal humanist beliefs gave him a strong sense of right and wrong, without being sanctimonious.
Many colleagues and friends around the world feel privileged to have known him over a life of quiet but outstanding distinction and achievement. He not only lived well but enriched the world around him at every chance.
Waites leaves behind his children Carol, Tim and Jon, six grandchildren and a younger sister, Sarita.
(David J. Handelsman is professor of reproductive endocrinology and andrology director at the ANZAC Research Institute, an external department of the University of Sydney)