Lives of the fellows

Derek Ernest Denny-Brown

b.1 June 1901 d.20 April 1981 OBE(1942) MB ChB NZ(1924) D Phil Oxon(1928) MRCP(1931) FRCP(1936) MD(1946)

Derek Denny-Brown was born in Christchurch, New Zealand. He was educated at the New Plymouth High School and Otago University. In 1925 he went to Oxford, where he matriculated through Magdalen College, simultaneously with JC Eccles and JZ Young. All three were later awarded the Rolleston memorial prize (Denny-Brown sharing it with WAH Rushton in 1930), and all three became honorary fellows of Magadalen. As Beit memorial fellow he worked with Sir Charles Sherrington from 1925-1928. He then went to the National Hospital, Queen Square, where he was successively resident medical officer and registrar to outpatients. The major influence during that period was Sir Gordon Holmes. He was subsequently registrar to Sir Charles Symonds at Guy’s Hospital, and in 1935 was appointed consultant both to Queen Square and St Bartholomew’s Hospital.

In 1936 he received a Rockefeller travelling fellowship to work with John Fulton at Yale. He returned to London in 1937, but in 1939 he was appointed director of the neurological unit at the Boston City Hospital. His appointment there was interrupted for two periods by the second world war in which he served with the British Army. In 1946 he became James Jackson Putnam professor of neurology at Harvard University; he became professor emeritus in 1967. He was Fogarty International scholar at the National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland from 1972 to 1973.

Denny-Brown was a man of immense energy with a remarkable capacity for sustained hard work. His Saturdays at the Boston City Hospital gave an examplar of the man. Coffee was first taken in the sparse surroundings of the laboratory. At 10 a.m. the grand round began in the rather small conference room, which was packed with his own staff and visitors from other departments and other hospitals. Distinguished visitors from abroad were often there. After a case had been presented, Denny-Brown would then discuss the problem exhaustively, drawing on his encylocpaedic knowledge.

Diagnosis was not his forte, and he spent little time on it. Standing, his tall figure slightly stooped, wearing a short white coat and with his bright, altert eyes partly closed and, as it were, focussed inwards, he would explore the pathology and the normal and pathological physiology which the case exemplified. He spoke clearly, with an inflection that showed his New Zealand origins, and had a characteristic way of hestitating for a moment in mid-sentence before making an important point. His thought was complex and his utterance (like his writing) at times obscure. But his insights were compelling.

At noon he took a leisurely lunch at which the conversation was witty and enriched from his fund of anecdotes. The mood then changed abruptly as he went to the laboratory with one or two of his fellows to work with the monkeys. His experimental method was fundamentally clinical: successive focal lesions were made and for many weeks the animals were systematically examined and the observations recorded on cine film and in his own clear handwriting. If the assistant who operated the camera did not respond immediately to his softly spoken instruction ‘go’ or ‘stop’, reproof was swift; neither time nor film was to be wasted. During these sessions, which often lasted until after 5 p.m., his concentration was absolute. He discouraged comments and questions and responded irritably to interruptions from man and monkey.

At home, he was warm and hospitable, and visitors from all over the world were charmed by the old-world courtesy with which he and his wife Sylvia greeted them. He was a good conversationalist, having wide intellectual interests and a real sense of fun.

Denny-Brown’s influence on neurology was profound. With his physiological background his emphasis was on mechanism. At Oxford he made observations on the physiology of the motor unit and of the postural background to movement which were of lasting importance. He was subsequently responsible for important insights into diseases of mucle, peripheral nerve, the basal ganglia, higher cerebral function and the cerebral circulation. His later years were devoted to the study of motor control and its breakdown in disease, and the mechanisms of compensation for its deficits.

His approach to training was disseminated throughout the United States by his pupils, a considerable number of whom came to head departments of neurology. His influence was scarcely less important in Britain. In his appreciative but trenchant letter declining the invitation of his former colleagues in 1960 to become the first professor of neurology at Queen Square, he set out his principles of neurological training and defined the role of the academic department of neurology. Knowledge of the existence of this letter and its contents played an important part in securing the change in attitude which led to the transformation of Queen Square in the 1960s and 70s.

Denny-Brown’s contribution to neurology was recognized by honorary degrees from universities in North and South America, the United Kingdom and New Zealand. He was made an honorary fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine in 1958 and of Magdalen in 1976. He gave the Goulstonian lecture to the College in 1937 and the Croonian lectures in 1960. He gave the Sherrington lectures at Liverpool in 1963 and was awarded the Sherrington medal of the Royal Society of Medicine in 1962. He received the Jacoby award of the American Neurological Association in 1968.

Derek Denny-Brown had married Sylvia Summerhayes in 1937. They had four sons.

WI MacDonald

[, 1981, 282, 2146; Lancet, 1981, 1, 116; Times, 28 Apr 1981]

(Volume VII, page 146)

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