Former Sun news editor Alan Watkins, whose stories are said to have helped prove the link between mad cow disease and variant CJD in humans, has died aged 74.
Former colleagues described Watkins (pictured) as a “legend in the industry” who produced “countless stories of genuine importance”.
Watkins died peacefully with his family by his side on 31 October following a short illness. He is survived by wife Ruth, daughter Susan and grandson Daniel.
Watkins began his career on the Laindon Recorder, Essex, aged 15 before moving on to the Southend Standard.
While at the Standard he defied his editor, who was away on holiday, by running a story about the arrival of the first supermarket in the county instead of a splash on the local flower show.
According to Susan: “He would have been fired had the paper not have sold out for the first time in its history.”
Watkins later joined Press Association, staying with a family for two weeks to report on the Aberfan mining tragedy.
Said Susan: “The stark sight of tiny coffins laid out on the Welsh hillside was an image that stayed with him throughout his life.
“His work here won him more recognition and it was not long before the nationals came calling.”
Watkins took a reporting job at the Sun where he later became night news editor, staying in the role for some 20 years before moving on to the Today newspaper.
“This he always told me was the best job he had ever had,” said Susan.
“He broke endless stories of national importance, but none mattered more to him than his work on proving the link between mad cow disease and the human variant CJD.
“For months he battled with Department of Health officials, working alongside eminent medical professors and the families of children infected with the deadly disease.
“Many of the children afflicted by the terrifying condition had received growth hormone treatment given by the NHS and he was absolutely determined to prove the link.
“Finally, after much hard work, he was able to publish what he knew. This in turn led to an extremely vitriolic letter from the then Minister for Health arriving on the news desk.
“A missive which he proudly described as ‘one of his greatest achievements’.
“As advice to me he once told me ‘trust me girl, if you get a letter like that you know you are on the right track’. And so it proved.
“Today all blood products must be screened for evidence of CJD before being given to patients.”
Watkins later returned to work for Press Association and The Guardian before turning freelance. He continued working up until shortly before his death.
Among those to have paid tribute to Watkins is James Mellor, of the Sunday Times, who said: “His tenacity and keen eye that led to countless stories of genuine importance being published”.
Dominic Herbert of The Sunday Mirror described Watkins as a “legend in the industry”, adding: “There will be many, like ourselves, saddened by his passing.”
David Wooding of The Sun on Sunday said he recalled “the laughs on the night desk” working with Watkins while Charles Hymas of The Sunday Times said Watkins’ “inimitable good humour and sense of fun that shone through in his emails”.
Added Susan: “Most of all Alan will be remembered as someone who always tried to give more than he would take. A true gentleman who loved the business until his dying day.”
Watkins’ funeral is to be held on 15 December at St. Cuthberts RC at 11am. All donations should go to the British Hedgehog Preservation Society care of funeral directors A.G Smith of Maldon, Essex.