Lives of the fellows

Ian Michael Pudsey Dawson

b.16 Nov 1921 d.28 Mar 1995
MRCS LRCP( 1944) BA MB Bchir Cantab(1945) MRCP(1949) MA(1950) MD(1955) MRCPath(1964) FRCPath(1967) FRCP(1969) Hon FRCOG(1988)

Ian Dawson was a distinguished pathologist, researcher, writer and teacher and his contribution to his subject was recognized all over the world. He was born in Grantham, Lincolnshire, and educated at Oundle School and Clare College, Cambridge. After qualifying from the Middlesex Hospital Medical School in 1945 he married Margaret Needham, then a radiographer. They moved to Haslemere Hospital where he was RMO for six months. Somehow they encountered the owner of a lame horse who wanted it’s leg X-rayed. At a suitable moment they led the limping beast through the gardens and into the X-ray department via a pair of large French windows. Soon the limb had been photographed and no fracture found. This simple story sums up Ian's attitudes towards medicine - no problem is too big to solve, convention shouldn’t stand in the way (why not X-ray a horse?) and helping people makes all the difference.

He went to India, Burma and Malaya with the RAMC and returned in 1948 to spend two years in general practice with his father. He had all the qualities of a fine GP but was never taken by family medicine and instead took a post at Cambridge University as junior assistant pathologist. He moved to Leeds in 1952 as lecturer in pathology, working with Rupert Willis [Munk’s Roll Vol.VII, p.608] who was a powerful mentor. Under him Ian learned and refined many skills, in particular how to write scientific papers. He published his MD thesis on adrenal hyperplasia and hypertension in 1955 and it won him the prestigious Raymond Horton Smith prize for the best work submitted that year.

From Leeds he went to Westminster Medical School for sixteen years, first as reader, then in 1967 he was awarded a chair as professor of experimental pathology. These years were highly productive. Early on he was still a general pathologist and his main research interest was in diagnostic enzyme histochemistry. He published numerous papers about techniques that aided diagnosis in gastrointestinal disease and gynaecological cytology. Later on he was recognized as a gastrointestinal expert, especially in the neuro-endocrine system of the gut. He met Basil Morson who was a specialist gastrointestinal pathologist at St Mark’s Hospital and together they wrote a book Gastrointestinal pathology, Oxford, Blackwell Scientific, 1972 (popularly known as ‘Morson and Dawson’) which quickly became a classic text. They also founded the pathology section of the British Society of Gastroenterology. For some years the two had met infrequently to discuss and compare clinical material and gradually drew round them other interested colleagues. It is now a flourishing component of the BSG with a large membership.

He was a fine teacher and wanted to share his enthusiasm with everyone. He hated the idea that pathology had a reputation for being dull and felt it should be taught differently. He would sit in a class in his shirt sleeves as part of the group of students, on their level, treating them as equals, believing today’s students are tomorrow’s colleagues, and he preferred to tell clinical stories. He did not say "Look at these abnormal plasma cells of myeloma" but "This is a bit of bone marrow from a 50 year old man with awful back pain. What do you think might be his trouble? What would you find on X-ray? In his urine?" This approach may be commoner now than it was then. He could be a dazzling lecturer, illustrating his talks with clinical photographs, X-rays, macroscopic colour photographs of abnormal organs and photomicrographs of abnormal histology. He would project several images simultaneously to show the relationship of clinical, radiological, pathological and histological components of disease which delighted his audiences, amused him and tested the limits of the audio-visual department.

He had another unusual characteristic for a pathologist; he would frequently visit patients on the wards, listen to their stories, examine them and compare the clinical picture with his pathological findings. He liked to challenge the idea that pathologists were subterranean creatures who in the course of their work had forgotten what a whole patient was.

His last move was to the new Nottingham University Medical School where he was professor of pathology from 1973 to 1982. He inherited another man’s dream and had the exacting job of modelling it to some sort of reality, a difficult task which he handled with tact and skill. The new hospital building was not finished when he arrived and the academic department of pathology comprised a small group of enthusiasts housed in 1940s prefabricated huts on campus, known as the cowsheds. From this unpromising start he developed a streamlined high technology unit that has flourished ever since. His expertise in diagnostic enzyme histochemistry expanded the service, particularly accurate interpretation of skeletal muscle biopsies in a wide range of neurological, paediatric and connective tissue diseases, something for which the department is still renowned. For the students he reorganized the teaching of pathology, making it more clinically orientated, relevant and interesting. He decided to retire after a heart attack from which he made a good recovery though he needed surgery later.

In 1988 he was elected an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, his reward for work done from 1980 to 1989 as central assessor in pathology on the confidential enquiry into maternal deaths.

A vital strand throughout his adult life was his Christian faith, which he first discovered through Margaret. He was an Anglican lay reader from 1959 and helped in many places, including the hospital chaplaincy at Queen’s Medical Centre in Nottingham. He was deeply committed but never pushed his faith on anyone else. For him faith was a very practical thing, you used it, you did things through it, you let it use you. St Paul said that faith without deeds was dead: Ian’s faith was constantly alive, it flowed out of him, you could feel it, and people responded to him. He got the best out of everyone, perhaps because he saw the best that is in each of us. He was a genuinely modest and humble man and rarely spoke of his achievements. He was wise in the ways of men, warm, compassionate and interested in everyone.

He was devoted to Margaret and frequently said he could not have done his work without her. He enjoyed reading (poetry, medieval history, detective novels), joinery and pottering in the garden though he never had green fingers and used the time to solve problems, or write books and sermons in his head, or reflect at peace.

After he died I received a letter from one of his colleagues, a very distinguished clinician: "Pathologists sometimes give the impression of being hardened cynics or indifferent to the sufferings of mankind. Ian was an example of how pathology could be used to help and cure." He would be rightly proud of this tribute for it crystallizes his aim and ideal. He died at his home from metastatic cancer of the prostrate.

Hugh Dawson

[Bull.Roy.Coll.Path., , 1995,91,9-10; Brit.med.J., 1995,311, 803]

(Volume X, page 103)

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