Lives of the fellows

Henry Hallett (Sir) Dale

b.9 June 1875 d.23 July 1968
OM(1944) GBE(1943) Kt(1932) CBE(1919) MA MD Cantab(1909) FRS(1914) FRCP(1922) Nobel Laureate Medicine(1936)

At a very early stage of his professional life, Henry Dale emerged among the leaders of research in the laboratory subjects allied to medicine. In his middle period he dominated it and in his last three decades he was acknowledged throughout the world as its doyen. Yet he was the first member of his family to have any connections with learning. His father was a cabinet maker in London, his mother the daughter of a bookseller, and neither they nor he seem to have entertained any idea till his later adolescence that he should do other than follow similar limited aims. At the outset his education seems to have depended on the chance friendships in the Wesleyan Methodist Community of his easy-going father. In this way he found himself at a small private school where, being a good examinee, he became unashamedly the star entry for the prizes, distinctions and examinations of the modest diploma granting bodies to which this aspired. A casual meeting by his father with the Headmaster of Leys School, Cambridge, led to this examination favourite being offered a place there. This, as luck would have it, then numbered among its masters a student of Trinity reading for Part II of his Tripos in Physiology and it was under the impulse of his enthusiasm that Dale slowly swung over to science and in 1894 entered Trinity College with two minor scholarships. Once there he began to stand out. But among his contemporaries was the great Rutherford and, the Master of Trinity being a physicist, it is perhaps not surprising that he beat Dale for the coveted fellowship. The result was that Dale betook himself to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, London to qualify in medicine. Before he could enter for his house appointments, however, a research studentship fell vacant at Cambridge. This Dale obtained and, thereby, as he recognized, definitely made the choice between physiology and clinical medicine as a career. A studentship at University College, London with E.H. Starling followed and he appeared all set for an academic career. But he soon found that, to him, undergraduate teaching was an unwelcome distraction. When, therefore, Sir Henry Wellcome offered him a post in his new physiological research laboratory, he, as he also wished to get married to his cousin, grasped the opportunity. Wellcome’s scheme, at the time, was a pioneer venture but Dale soon found that, despite the promise of a free hand in research, he could not avoid being drawn in to consider problems thrown up by the wide practicalities of the pharmaceutical industry. Half resenting this at first, he soon began to welcome these challenges so that, in later life, he had no shadow of doubt that this forcible expansion of his experience was the most fortunate thing that could have happened to him. It was in this way that he was driven to examine the properties of ergot and so into the path that was to lead him to distinction. Dale stayed with the Wellcome Laboratories for ten years, during most of which he was Director. Then came his great opportunity.

Following on the National Insurance Act of 1911, a Medical Research Committee had been set up. This decided to set up a National Institute for Medical Research and, at the insistence of Gowland Hopkins, Dale was appointed head of its Department of Pharmacology and Biochemistry. No sooner was this settled, however, than the first World War broke out and Dale again felt himself called upon to cope with an increasingly wide range of practical situations. It was now that he was driven to give serious consideration to the problem of biological standardization. The incidence of syphilis was rising and batches of the relevant arsenicals varied widely in potency. Antitoxins were similarly unstandardized, and the potency of extracts of the posterior pituitary gland showed an eightyfold variation. By grasping the principle of setting up standard preparations on an international basis, Dale solved the problem and thus made one of the greatest contributions to practical medicine. But this was only one aspect of his concern. Wound infection and antiseptics, shock and anaphylaxis also demanded his attention. It thus came about that at the end of the War, Dale had emerged as one of those rare men, like Louis Pasteur, who could wring important knowledge out of the whole range of experience, from the most practical to the most recondite. His appointment as Director of the National Institute for Medical Research followed inevitably in 1928 when circumstances permitted.

With the slackening of pressure that came with peace, Dale’s scientific work surged ahead. As Director of a multi-disciplinary Institute he appeared omniscient. In every Department his advice was accepted as so valuable that none questioned the leadership that he so freely, so enthusiastically, and so naturally gave. But alongside this, his personal research was clearly reaching the heights. Steadily this mounted from ergot, through the sympathomimetic amines, histamine, adrenalin and acetylcholine until it found its expression in the embracing theory of the chemical transmission of nervous impulses. In this search he was not alone. In his Cambridge days, his great friend, T.R. Elliott had pointed to this conclusion, but later hesitated. Another friend, Otto Loewi, was tending in the same direction. By the mid-1930s the theory was established and, as was fitting, Dale and Loewi were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize.

Dale stayed as Director of the National Institute until his postponed retirement, aged 67, in 1942. By then he had been elected, as was practically inevitable, to the Presidency of the Royal Society. Again he was involved with the problems of a World War, although this time at a wider and higher level. As Chairman of the Scientific Advisory Committee to the War Cabinet he was at the centre of momentous events. In the nature of things a full appreciation of his role in regard to these is precluded by unavailability of information. It would seem, however, that he grasped and made known the implications of developments in the atomic field and, the War ended, he unequivocally condemned secrecy in scientific matters, and in 1949 showed in no uncertain terms his loyalty to scientific independence by resigning from his membership of the USSR Academy during the Lysenko controversy.

In his retirement, honours flowed in upon him. He was Director of the Royal Institution from 1942-46, President of the British Association in 1947, President of the Royal Society of Medicine from 1948 to 1950, and President of the British Council from 1950 to 1955. Still full of interest and experience, he was not content to bask in these. He was active and constructive in every post he occupied. But it was in relation to his position as Chairman of the Wellcome Trustees that his continued ability for creative leadership found its chief outlet. In this capacity he played an invaluable role in nursing biomedical research in this country back to strength in the immediate post-war years and thereafter aiding its present great expansion. Throughout this time he was active in his attendance at scientific meetings, where his immense knowledge not only of past but present developments in research, and his quick grasp of the essentials of a problem, compelled the continued respect and often rueful admiration of his younger colleagues.

To those who did not know him, the record of Dale’s ability and achievements must seem overwhelming. Some certainly found him devastating. But this was not due to intent, it stemmed from his entirely unconscious but undoubtedly disconcerting quickness in seeing implications. Yet by character Dale was essentially a magnanimous and happy man with an unalloyed appreciation of those bent on scientific achievement that never left him. The warm affection as well as admiration in which he was held should, therefore, be no mystery to future generations.

Sir Harold Himsworth

[, 1968, 3, 318, 261 (L), 382, 505; Lancet, 1968, 2, 288; J. Amer. Med. Assoc., 1967, 202, 431-3; Times, 24, 25 & 31 July, 1968, 12 Oct 1968; Guardian, 24 July 1968; Biogr.Mem.Roy.Soc., 1970, 16, 77-174; DNB]

(Volume VI, page 130)

<< Back to List