Lives of the fellows

Allan Watt Downie

b.5 September 1901 d.26 January 1988
MB ChB Aberd(1923) MD(1929) DSc(1937) FRS(1955) FRCPath(1964) FRCP(1982) Hon LLD Aberd

Allan Downie and his identical twin, Richard, were born in the Mid Street cottage in Rosehearty, Aberdeenshire, where William and Margaret (nee Watt) Downie had raised their other six children. Three generations of Downies had lived by sailing deep-sea drifters from the tiny harbour, and for 14 years the twins seemed set to follow. However, their outstanding intellect had been spotted by their village school headmaster who, in 1915, coached them into Fraserburgh Academy.

In 1918 they entered Aberdeen medical school, leaving in July 1923 with first class honours, every academic prize in each year being shared between them, and as the professor of medicine, Sir Ashley Mackintosh, disclosed on graduation day, each with equal marks in the four professional examinations. As their ‘year’ celebrated in the Kirkgate Bar, Allan was nearer to the door than Richard; thus it was he who received a job offered by the astute John Cruickshank who wanted one of the twins as his assistant, starting in the following October. Three months in general practice in Sheffield helped Allan to repay some of the debt he owed his parents - and he was set on his remarkable career.

For four years he worked in Aberdeen as Cruickshank’s assistant on diagnostic research and public health bacteriology; he taught himself German in order to profit from Cruickshank’s German-speaking evenings; he spent four months in Breslau with Karl Prausnitz, of Prausnitz-Kustner fame, and published in German, with Meissner, a paper which finally disposed of the heresy that the tubercle bacillus had a filterable form. On his return he prepared his MD thesis; in 1929 this was awarded with the highest honours and received the Thursfield prize.

Then a move to Manchester’s pathology department, followed by six years in bacteriology with H B Maitland, introduced Downie to pox viruses. He was later to become recognized as a world authority on smallpox, its epidemiology and pathogenesis, and the virus that caused it.

In 1934, Allan Downie was appointed to the prestigious Senior Freedom research fellowship at the London Hospital. The appointment was conditional on first spending an academic year in New York at the Rockefeller Institute. He found himself working with O T Avery at a time which we now see as a turning point in medical science. Downie himself recognized that year as the most formative and stimulating year of his scientific life. Fred Griffith, in London, had demonstrated capsular transformation of pneumococci; Avery’s group was close to success in demonstrating that DNA was the ‘transforming principle’; leaving Watson and Crick in Cambridge to ice the cake - with the aid of Rosalind Franklin’s crystallographic findings - and to reveal the beauty of the double helix. It was the start of molecular genetics.

Downie already had a major interest in pneumococcal infection and immunity and, on his return to London, he wrote his DSc thesis. Sulphapyridine had however taken the grave import out of pneumococcal infection, making immunotherapy redundant, and Allan Downie returned to his pox viruses; making the surprising discovery that vaccinia virus as used for smallpox vaccination was not after all the cause of naturally occurring cowpox.

In 1939 Downie left the London Hospital for the National Institute of Medical Research at Hampstead - but never arrived! Instead, the MRC drafted him to take charge of the laboratory in Cambridge set up by the newly formed Emergency Public Health Laboratory Service. East Anglia was thought to be a prime target for German invasion, and the Cambridge laboratory had to be prepared for any infective catastrophe which enemy action might bring. In the event it was largely civil public health problems rather than military needs which formed the bulk of the workload, although the latter did include making, on the open bench, batches of rabies vaccine for the troops. There was no Howie Safety Code in those days.

Downie’s extensive experience in Manchester and London with pox viruses led to his being given responsibility for laboratory diagnosis throughout the UK but, curiously, this task never burdened him until 1944 after he had arrived in Liverpool to fill the chair of bacteriology at the university.

The mode of Downie’s appointment bears telling: Hedley Wright had died and Liverpool University was desperate to find a worthy successor. Downie was invited to apply but, for his own reasons, declined. He agreed however to visit his good friend Tom Davie [Munk's Roll, Vol.V, p.95], who was professor of pathology and dean, to look around. Davie and the vice-chancellor had recently laid on a selection committee and Downie, without warning, was thrust in and to his shocked surprise appointed.

Downie held the chair for 23 years, serving for periods also as dean and pro-vice-chancellor. His 110 published papers show the breadth of his interests, but smallpox proved to be the most fascinating.

Allan Downie’s role in the WHO eradication campaign has been told elsewhere; suffice it to say that without his initial planning, his expertise and practical cooperation, and particularly his generous advice given throughout without thought of personal recognition, the campaign might not have succeeded. When eradication was complete the RCP honoured Allan Downie, in a way which pleased him as no other honour could have done, by making him a Fellow of the College.

Allan married Nancy McHardy in 1936 and they had three children, a son and two daughters. Honours, distinctions and fame never changed him. He played football in his youth, golf and table tennis well into his 70’s, gardened, cooked fudge or oatcakes and was a dreadful nuisance in his Nancy’s kitchen. Each summer he sailed his old fishing boat out of Rosehearty’s harbour, first with his three children and later with his grandchildren, or with any friends who had the courage to face those treacherous waters. He was a man of incomparable charm and total honesty, loved by all and living on in the work of those whom he trained so well.

K McCarthy

[The Times, 28 Jan 1988; The Independent, Feb 1988; Lancet, 1988,1,312,426]

(Volume VIII, page 138)

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