Lives of the fellows

William Hofmeyr Craib

b.17 May 1895 d.10 April 1982
MC/bar MB BChir Cantab(1923) MRCP(1928) MD(1930) FRCP(1936) Hon LLD Cape Town(1962) Hon MD Wits(1966) Hon DSc Natal(1969)

‘Don’ Craib was born in the small Karoo town of Somerset East, South Africa, and educated at Gill College where his Scots father, Professor James Craib, was a teacher. A bursary enabled him to study engineering at the South African College in Cape Town, where he took his BA in mathematics and physics. He resigned from a post as lecturer in the University in order to volunteer for service in Europe (1914-1918) and enlisted in the Royal Field Artillery. His exceptional courage and gallantry as a battery commander in France gained him the Military Cross and bar.

After the war, he decided to study medicine and was admitted to Caius College, Cambridge, and later entered Guy’s Hospital, London, where he graduated in 1923. He was one of the earliest recipients of a Rockefeller fellowship, which enabled him to work at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore from 1925 to 1926, during which time EP Carter encouraged him to undertake fundamental work on the electrical forces in the heart.

On returning to England, he joined Sir Thomas Lewis’s electrocardiographic work. He wrote three papers during this time, the first being a study of the electrical fields surrounding active heart muscle, in 1927; the second a study of the electrical fields surrounding skeletal muscle, in 1928; and the third a Medical Research Council monograph on the electrocardiogram, in 1930. Whilst in America, Craib had a feeling that his work was being ignored because it posed too much of a challenge to the accepted electrocardiographic theory of the day, and this feeling grew during his work for Lewis.

The two men had increasing disagreements about the research being undertaken - it is said that they argued all day and every day - and eventually Craib was forced to resign his post and return to South Africa.

In essence Craib had challenged the accepted negativity hypothesis, at that time, of the genesis of the ECG current, and showed that myocardial excitation entailed movement along the muscle fibre, not a wave of negativity, but of an electrical doublet. FN Wilson of Ann Arbor later refined this work and named it the dipole hypothesis. In spite of their disagreement, Lewis was generous to his junior colleague and wrote in 1929 ‘by the doublet hypothesis the interpretation of electrical responses from excitable tissues in general is reduced to a state of much greater simplicity and accuracy’.

Later in life, however, Craib came to believe his work had been unfairly neglected and opposed, both in America and also in England, by ED Adrian of Cambridge in addition to Lewis, and he wrote for private publication a monograph entitled ‘In Defence of Honour’, in which he was the defendant in an imaginary court scene, charges being levelled against him. Although this monograph was written in a humorous style there is no doubt that it showed a decided streak of paranoia. This was unnecessary because in addition to Wilson and Lewis, Craib’s work was praised in print by the ECG pioneer D Sodi-Pallares in 1970.

On returning to South Africa, Craib occupied the post of professor of medicine at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg for fourteen years. This however was a part-time post and offered him no opportunities for research. Or if it did, he certainly did not take them up, because he never wrote another word on the electrocardiogram, and the papers that he did publish after leaving Britain were of a minor nature.

In the second world war Craib was a senior physician in the South African Army, and on his return to the medical school he had a disagreement with the Senate, resigned and started practice in Port Elizabeth. In his later years, several honorary degrees were bestowed on him in South Africa, and in addition he was appointed vice-president of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research there, and was elected to life-time membership of the Johns Hopkins Society of Scholars. In 1976 he had the great satisfaction of having his research publicly praised at the Seventh European Congress of Cardiology.

Personally, he was a very pleasant person to meet and talk with, and Sir George Pickering once said ‘if you meet Don Craib, please give him my love - I was very fond of him’. He was survived by his wife, Doris Eileen Vevers of Bristol, a professional ’cellist before her marriage, and their two daughters; Gillian Mary, a senior nursing sister at the Provincial Hospital in Port Elizabeth, and Patricia Gwynne, a qualified radiotherapist who trained under John Hodson at UCH. Patricia (Patsy) married John Skinner, professor of zoology at Pretoria University and director of the Mammal Research Institute.

A Hollman

[Lancet, 1983,1, 1232; SA Med. J., 1982,62,37; Somerset Budget (SA), 30 Apr 1975; Johns Hopkins Med. J., 1976, 138, 279-288]

(Volume VII, page 119)

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