b.3 November 1889 d.2 August 1980
Kt (1950) CBE (1944) MB BChir Cantab (1916) MA MD (1920) FRS (1937) FRCP*(1951)
Sir Alan was a very punctual and regular man, and it seems clear that he got these habits from his father, who worked for the Great Eastern Railway and eventually became superintendent of the line. Sir Alan wrote of his father: ‘Unpunctuality in life meant to him a waste of one’s own and other peoples’ time. In addition, he believed that it was possible to achieve more if life was lived in a regular manner’.
Alan’s interest in learning developed only during his last year at school, but after that he advanced very rapidly. Although he did not get an entrance scholarship to Cambridge, he was awarded a scholarship as a result of exams which he took after his first year, and he went on to get a first in both parts of the Natural Sciences Tripos. He was also awarded a special studentship by his College and a prize for the best all round performance. His physiology class included Adrian and Rudolph Peters, and they were taught by Joseph Barcroft; with them he formed lifelong friendships.
After service with the RAMC in India in the first world war, he was offered a job by Sir Thomas Lewis, whom he had met briefly during his first few months in the RAMC. He worked with Lewis for what he described as ‘six breathless years’. Alan gave a vivid and entertaining account of these years in a paper which he published in the University College Hospital magazine in 1955. He described how the whole work of Thomas Lewis’s circle was conducted in an unattractive basement, dark, crowded with equipment and uninviting. He wrote: ‘into it came patients for electrocardiography, dogs for experiments, trays with coffee and buns for lunch. It was hot and dusty in summer and cold in winter. The scientific peaks were the only scenery and it was our job to try to find the pathways to the top’. There is no doubt that Alan found this period extremely stimulating, and that even if he found Lewis rather a hard taskmaster, he would never hear anything critical said about him without reminding one of all his strong points.
In 1926, Alan applied for the chair of physiology at St Bartholomew’s Hospital. However, while waiting for the result of his application he developed pulmonary tuberculosis and, although the hospital offered him the post, he had meanwhile decided that he should seek work outside London, and turned the offer down. From 1927 until 1940 he worked in Cambridge as an external member of the MRC Scientific Staff. HR Dean gave him accommodation in the department of pathology, and was doubtless influential in getting him a fellowship at Trinity Hall. He now entered on a period when he collaborated with some very interesting people, two of whom, Szent-Györgyi and Florey, later received Nobel prizes. With typical modesty he wrote: ‘a few visitors came to work with me and I had a useful and interesting life’. In 1937 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society.
In early 1940 the sort of opportunity which he had been hoping for came his way, when the MRC asked him to join their headquarters staff, and he found himself in charge of the four London Blood Supply Depots. He remained at the MRC head office until 1943, when he was invited to become director of the Lister Institute.
The years 1940 to 1945 were probably the busiest in Alan’s life; apart from serving as a member of the Medical Research Council and the Colonial Medical Research Committee, he was chairman of committees on blood transfusion research, traumatic shock, and several related to nutrition. Incidentally, he always attributed some particularly favourable development in his career to the help of someone else, and in this case it was his old friend Sir Landsborough Thomson who got the credit. In 1952 he entered on the last period of his professional career, when he was nearing retirement age at the Lister Institute. He moved to Babraham to take charge of the department of experimental pathology. Most remarkably, he took up a new line of research, and with Betty Tucker he opened a new field of work relating to blood groups and red cell survival in sheep. In his middle sixties, he retained all his enthusiasm for research. He would come to the lambing pens late in the evening when there was an important lamb to be studied, and go on working throughout the night.
Although his own research work was extremely valuable, Alan’s greatest contribution surely came from his tremendous impact on the scientific development of blood transfusion. The work which he fostered had an influence throughout the world, wherever blood transfusion was practised. His interest in the subject began just before the outbreak of World War II, when he encouraged RIN Greaves to apply his knowledge of freeze-drying to the preparation of dried serum for transfusion. Alan kept in close touch with this work, and was responsible in 1942 for securing a substantial grant from the Wellcome Trustees, which led to the setting up of a plant in Cambridge capable of drying enough plasma for virtually the whole country.
As director of the Medical Research Council Blood Transfusion Research Committee, he brought together everyone who was in a position to influence the development of the subject, and through his guidance the Committee initiated projects on a very wide range of topics. From about 1941 onwards it was true to say that the United Kingdom was leading the field not only in many scientific aspects of blood transfusion but also certainly in the efficiency with which supplies of blood and plasma were provided.
As soon as the war ended, Alan instituted a series of moves which consolidated the gains which had been made during the war. He persuaded the Medical Research Council to set up several units working on different aspects of the subject, and he himself became honorary director of the Blood Products Research Unit, which soon made great strides in plasma fractionation. The Lister Institute, under his directorship, also gave hospitality to Dr Race’s Blood Group Research Unit and Dr Mourant’s Blood Group Reference Laboratory, and the predominance of the United Kingdom in this field lasted for at least the two subsequent decades.
Although Alan was a man of great achievements he was the most ‘unpompous’ person you could meet. He had a rather diffident manner, athough he could speak out very firmly and pungently when the occasion rose. He treated everyone alike, and although he knew so many famous and influential people he was the very antithesis of a name-dropper. He had the admirable habit of giving you his whole attention and you never felt that he was looking over your shoulder to see if somebody more important was passing by. One particularly endearing characteristic was his constant action behind the scenes to help his protégés. The fact that he was trusted by many eminent scientists of his day made him a powerful patron and a recommendation from him would always be taken seriously. Although, to many people, he appeared reserved, he behaved with great warmth to those who had come to know him, and he was the most constant of friends.
Alan married Daphne Marguerite Brownsword in 1916, and there was a son and a daughter of the marriage. His wife died in 1975.
Sir Gordon Wolstenholme
* 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.med.J., 1980, 281, 568; Lancet, 1980, 2, 378; Times, 5 Aug 1980; Biogr.Mem.Roy.Soc., 1981, 27, 173-198]
(Volume VII, page 168)
<< Back to List