Lives of the fellows

Walter Ernest Dixon

b.2 June 1871 d.16 August 1931
OBE(1919) BSc Lond(1891) MB BS Lond(1896) DPH Cantab(1898) MD Lond(1898) Hon MA Cantab(1902) Hon LLD Manitoba(1931) MRCS LRCP(1895) FRS(1911) *FRCP(1930)

W. E. Dixon, the younger son of Robert Bland Dixon and Ann Jones (Prior) Dixon, was born in Darlington. He was educated there and at Dulwich, and later at St. Thomas’s Hospital where he was subsequently house physician and a Salter’s research fellow. In this appointment he studied the properties of the cactus anhalonium lewini (mescal) and also cannabis Indica—an early experience from whence, doubtless, sprang his life-long interest in drugs of addiction.

In 1899 he became assistant to the Downing professor of medicine at Cambridge. Three years later his course was set when he was appointed lecturer in pharmacology. From 1906 he also held the chair in materia medica and pharmacology at King’s College, London, until, in 1919, he returned from important work in naval intelligence during the Great War to work entirely at Cambridge as university reader in pharmacology.

Both in London and at Cambridge Dixon created centres of pharmacological teaching and research with a far reaching fame at a time when development of the science of experimental pharmacology as the basis of therapeutics made very little appeal in this country. His teaching had a very practical bent. Not only was he an unforgettable lecturer, but many clinicians were among his closest friends. He respected their skills and understood their problems in a way many laboratory workers quite fail to do. His instinct was to make pharmacology the handmaiden of therapeutics and not the slave of physiology, much as his own work depended on the latter.

His most original work was on the action of drugs on the bronchial musculature and pulmonary vasomotor system, on the mode of action of drugs, and on cerebrospinal fluid, especially in relation to postpituitary hormone and ovarian activity. In 1903 with T. G. Brodie he published the first of his papers on the physiology of the lungs (J. Physiol. (Lond.), 1903, 29, 97-131). Using a novel plethysmographic technique, they studied the innervation of the bronchial muscles and vasomotor system and the action of numerous substances on the bronchial musculature.

This included the first experimental demonstration that bronchial muscle spasm causes an asthmatic state and that this can be induced by stimulation of the nasal mucous membrane. At this time also, with studies on apocodeine, began his interest in the site and mode of action of drugs. Later (1907), he was the first to show that vagal stimulation causes release of an inhibitory substance in the heart and might act through this mechanism.

His work on cerebrospinal fluid began in 1910 with Halliburton. It dealt with its secretion and circulation, demonstrating that extracts from the choroid plexus contained a specific excitant; and then with the cerebrospinal fluid pressure and the effects upon it of alterations in the circulation, as well as the diffusion of substances into and out of the fluid and the effects of drugs on the cerebral vessels.

Dixon was the first to show that an active oxytocic substance in the posterior lobe of the pituitary gland was present also in the cerebrospinal fluid (1923) and that administration of an ovarian extract increased the amount. Then, with F. H. Marshall (J. Physiol. (Lond.), 1924, 59, 276-88, he showed that this effect was found only when corpora lutea were absent from the ovary, and that the active ovarian substance did not act directly on the uterus, but that of the pituitary did so, the first experimental attempt to link ovarian and pituitary activity to the natural induction of labour.

From 1927 he succeeded Cushny as joint editor, with J. J. Abel, of the Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics. He was also consultant pharmacologist for the first edition of the British Pharmaceutical Codex of 1911, and served on several committees, including those on the standardisation of biological products and on the preservation of foods.

Dixon had many of the qualities of the finest teachers and investigators, and his place among the pioneers of pharmacology is secure along with Schmiedeberg, Hans Meyer, Magnus, Cushny,Trendelenburg and Dale. He had an arresting personality and an open and original mind. A man of the world, adventurously extrovert, he had no trace of pomposity or hypocrisy. He was completely approachable by his juniors, prepared always to put their ideas to the test of experiment and to guide their work in the most unselfish way. He had a striking blend of independence, purpose, humour and kindness which filled those around him with enthusiasm and loyalty.

Allied to a wide curiosity was a strong sense of the importance of not putting all one’s eggs in one basket, so that his outlook was the antithesis of that of the narrow specialist. He could be a firm critic; but for this very reason and his fundamental good nature he was a remarkable trainer of youth. His wife, Hope, was the daughter of Francis Glen-Allan, of Dulwich. They were married in 1907; there were no children.

Richard R Trail

* He was elected under the special bye-law which provides for the election to the fellowship of "Persons holding a medical qualification, but not Members of the College, who have distinguished themselves in the practice of medicine, or in the pursuit of Medical or General Science or Literature..."

[Brit. J. phys. Med., 1931, 6, 136; Brit.med.J., 1931, 2, 361-3 (p), 405; J. Pharmacol, exp. Ther., 1932,44, 3-21, bibl.; Lancet, 1931, 2, 429-30 (p); Proc. roy. Soc., B, 1932, 110, xxix-xxxi (p); D.N.B., 1931-1940, 231.]

(Volume V, page 104)

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