Lives of the fellows

Alastair Robert (Sir) Currie

b.8 October 1921 d.12 January 1994
Kt( 1979) BSc Glasg(1941) MB ChB(1944) MRCP Edin(1947) FRCP Edin(1957) FRFPS(1959) MRCP Glasg(1962) MRCPath(1963) FRSE(1964) FRCP Glasg(1964) FRCPath(1965) MRCP(1966) FRCP(1971) FRCSE(1973) Hon DSc Birm(1983) Hon DSc Aberd(1985) Hon LLD Glasg(1987) Hon Dr hc Edin(1991)

Alastair Currie was one of the foremost pathologists of his generation. Over many years he made a major contribution to the development of cancer research in Britain. He was born on the Hebridean island of Islay where he received his early schooling at Port Ellen and Bowmore before attending the High School in Glasgow. He entered the medical school at Glasgow University just before the Second World War and graduated in 1944. After completing house jobs in Glasgow he began training in pathology at Glasgow Royal Infirmary where, apart from a period of national service with the RAMC in Austria, he remained as lecturer and then senior lecturer until 1959.

From the beginning of his career in pathology he was greatly interested in research. At the Glasgow Royal Infirmary he studied the functional interrelationship of the pituitary and adrenal glands in conditions of stress and in other disease states in collaboration with Tom Symington. He became a recognized authority on the physiology and pathology of the anterior pituitary gland and he was one of the first in the UK to use fluorescent antibodies to study the location of pituitary hormones in tissues. It was during this time that, together with J Ferguson Smith, he wrote the first definitive account of the pathology of the familial multiple self-healing cutaneous squamous cell carcinomas. His observations in these cases and the appreciation that cell death occurring spontaneously in some tumours might form a vital element of their growth laid the foundations for his later thinking about the phenomenon of apoptosis.

In 1959 he was invited to join the Imperial Cancer Research Fund Laboratories in Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London as the head of the division of pathology. Here, with Stretton Young, he began studies on the endocrine dependence of tumours and developed experimental models in which the growth of carcinogen-induced mammary cancers in rodents could be manipulated by hormonal means. In these studies and experiments he was again to observe the apparent death of cells during tumour regression.

In 1962 he returned to Scotland and became the Regius professor of pathology at the University of Aberdeen. During the next decade he transformed the department in Aberdeen, restructuring and re-equipping its research laboratories and re-organizing and substantially improving the diagnostic services provided. In Aberdeen he was also able to indulge his long-standing interest in medical education, helping to re-organize the curriculum and introducing televised clinico-pathological conferences for teaching at a time when this was considered an innovation. He was also quick to recognize the importance of the intercalated honours degree for medical students, both as a means of enabling more able undergraduates to obtain experience of medical research and of recruiting the best medical graduates to pathology. He was a firm advocate of the Socratic method of teaching which, when combined with his remarkable memory for names and faces, guaranteed full attendance and full attention at his lectures.

It was during this time in Aberdeen that the seeds of his seminal work on apoptosis began to take firm root. His earlier work on self-healing cutaneous squamous cell carcinomas and the changes he had observed in endocrine responsive tumours had prepared his mind for the concept of programmed cell death. The observations made by John Kerr, then a visiting pathologist in his department from Brisbane, on basal cell carcinomas and the effects of hepatic cytotoxins stimulated him further. Together with Andrew Wyllie, they evolved the hypothesis that programmed cell death (subsequently renamed apoptosis), along with cell proliferation, might constitute complementary but opposing elements in the growth and regression of cells in tissues in various physiological and pathological conditions, including tumours. Their seminal paper setting out these ideas was published in 1972 but the concept of apoptosis and its role in the regulation of cell populations in tissues was extremely slow to receive acceptance from the scientific community at large. Its importance, however, has now been widely recognized and indeed a number of putative apoptotic genes have now been identified. Further knowledge of the function and operation of these genes and the cellular processes associated with apoptosis may well lead to new ways of treating diseases like cancer.

In 1972 he was invited to take the chair of pathology at the University of Edinburgh, where he remained until his retirement in 1986. In Edinburgh he continued his research on apoptosis with Wyllie and others, whilst at the same time undertaking a major re-organization of the department’s activities. The department in Edinburgh soon became recognized as a centre of excellence both nationally and internationally and he attracted many bright young staff who were subsequently to move to head departments of their own.

Over the years his sound judgement and ability to think strategically led increasingly to his involvement in the planning of medical research and health services at the national level. He was twice a member of the Medical Research Council and during his second term served as an outstanding chairman of the cell biology and disorders board and of the joint MRC/CRC committee for the Institute of Cancer Research. He was a member of the Zuckerman committee and chairman of the standing advisory committee on laboratory services for Scotland. He served as a member of the chief scientists committee in Scotland and as chairman of its biomedical research committee.

Latterly, he became increasingly involved in the work of the Cancer Research Campaign, serving on its council and chairing its scientific committee. He was appointed as chairman of the UK co-ordinating committee for cancer research, and as chairman of the board of governors of both the Beatson and Patterson Institutes for Cancer Research. He later became the Campaigns treasurer and vice-president - the latter a particular honour - only accorded to two other distinguished individuals during the Campaign s seventy year history.

In his retirement he took a particular interest in the affairs of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, becoming president from 1991 to 1993, the only medical graduate to be honoured in this way this century. His tenure of office was marked by a major growth in the Society’s commitment to the arts and letters, enabling it to have a wider representation of the academic community in Scotland. He also did much to strengthen the Society’s relationship with the Scottish Office and he instigated the Society’s Forward Look campaign for the next century. Indeed his report was instrumental in the Society deciding to extend its premises in George Street and to expand its educational activities for young people and for communities away from traditional academic centres in Scotland.

Alastair Currie epitomized all the very best qualities of the successful Highland Scot. He had great dignity, style and charm, and yet he was an unassuming man who disliked pomp and circumstance. In his early days he was a very competent and competitive golfer and, when time permitted, a keen fly fisherman. In his later years he took great pleasure from the holiday cottage he had acquired at Loch Fyne close to that of his life-long friend Sir Theo Crawford [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.103]. He cherished his Highland and West Coast origins and he was especially proud when he was invited to become a trustee of the Islay museums.

But most of all, he treasured his family life. He married Jeanne Clarke in 1949 and they had five children. The support of his family and his strong faith as an elder of the Greyfriars Tolbooth and Highland Kirk in Edinburgh were to sustain him during his final illness.

C C Bird

[Brit.med.J.,1994,308,336; Daily Telegraph, 27 Jan 1994; Times, 20 Jan 1994; The Independent, 19 Jan 1994; Bulletin Roy.Coll.Path., 86, Apr 1994]

(Volume X, page 88)

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