Lives of the fellows

Stewart Ranken Douglas

b.22 February 1871 d.20 January 1936
MRCS LRCP(1896) FRS(1922) *FRCP(1933)

Stewart Douglas struggled against continual illness during his last thirty-five years, during which he never courted publicity, but gained the increasing admiration and affection of his colleagues. He was born at Coulsdon Grange, Caterham, the son of James Alexander Douglas, a banker, and his wife, Helen Mary Ranken. Neither his schooldays at Haileybury nor his years at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital showed any evidence of his later brilliance; he was quite content with the conjoint qualification. Yet he passed easily into the Indian Medical Service in 1898 and was asked by Almroth Wright to go with him to India on the first Plague Commission. After investigating the disease in Kuamor with Walton he was posted to China during the Boxer Rebellion and was unfortunately infected with bacillary dysentery which forced his retirement from the Service.

Soon, however, he joined his old chief at St. Mary’s Hospital, and became expert in Wright’s technique of the teat and capillary tube, writing many papers with him on the opsonic index and on vaccine therapy, and accepted by him as a worthy fellow consultant. The considerable income which his knowledge could have brought from private practice never appealed to Douglas; he sought no material rewards and wrote only when he felt compelled to share his knowledge with other research workers.

The outbreak of war in 1914 showed how dependent we had become on Germany for supplies of peptone. Large quantities of culture medium for typhoid vaccine had to be provided by St. Mary’s Hospital, and within days Douglas had produced a peptone medium far superior to any previously used. He joined Wright in Boulogne, where the intense cold in the damp cellars used as laboratories brought on sciatica which necessitated long bed treatment at home.

But in 1915 he was back at the work on typhoid and other vaccines, for which he was made Chevalier de l’Ordre de la Couronne de Belgique, and on research in dysentery then rife among troops serving in the Mediterranean. In the following year he worked in the special wards for men with severe war wounds, inventing new and comparatively painless dressings and developing a very successful method of skin-grafting.

In 1918 Douglas was appointed director of the department of experimental pathology in the new Medical Research Council’s laboratories at Hampstead. There he did his greatest work, organising the researches of men like Laidlaw, Dobell, Gye and Galloway into the problems of virology, particularly in dysentery. His individual work on the extraction of bacteria by acetone led to Dreyer’s ‘diaplyte’, and his synthetic medium for the growth of tubercle bacilli to a more potent and less objectionable form of tuberculin. He was well worthy of his election to the fellowship of the Royal Society.

Douglas never allowed his depressing illnesses to change his equable temperament or to interfere with his much-loved sports of fishing and shooting; these in later life he enjoyed during summer holidays in Shetland with his wife, Frances Miriam Clare, the daughter of Capt. Dayrell, R.N., of Lillingstone, Dayrell, Buckinghamshire, and the widow of Dr J. B. Nias, whom he had married in his fiftieth year.

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..."

[, 1936, 1, 239-40; J.Path.Bact., 1936, 42, 515-22 (p), bibl.; Lancet, 1936, 1, 229-31 (p); Nature (Lond.), 1936, 137, 215-16; Obit. Not. roy. Soc., 1936-38, 2, 175-82 (p), bibl.]

(Volume V, page 109)

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