Lives of the fellows

Leo Wilfred Duchen

b.15 October 1928 d.2 August 1996
MB BCh Wits(1950) DCP(1955) PhD(1963) MRCPath(1964) MD(1969) FRCPath(1969) MRCP(1979) DSc Lond(1982) FRCP(1984)

Leo Wilfred Duchen was a distinguished neuropathologist who helped train a generation of leading consultants and researchers. He was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. After being educated at King Edward VII School in Johannesburg, he went on to study medicine at the University of Witwatersrand, graduating in 1950. He immediately started on a career as a pathologist, becoming a lecturer in pathology at the same university. He subsequently showed a keen interest in neuropathology and joined Peter Daniel’s department at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, first as an MRC research fellow. In 1964 he was appointed a lecturer and the following year a senior lecturer. In 1970 he was made a reader and in 1975 he received the title of professor of experimental neuropathology (personal chair) from the University of London. A year later he was appointed professor of neuropathology to the established chair at the Institute of Neurology. He retired in September 1992.

From a professional point of view the years he spent at the Institute of Psychiatry were among the most stimulating of his scientific life. There he met and worked with personalities such as Nick Corsellis [q.v.] Sabina Strich, Murray Falconer and Amico Bignami. He also found the ideal background in which to express his great abilities for research. Indeed it was in those years that he conducted his pioneering work on the effects of botulinum toxin on the neuromuscular junction. Using light and electron microscopic techniques he established the sequence of events following local injection of the toxin into the muscle - the degeneration of the neuromuscular function followed by the florid regeneration of the terminals that establish multiple junctions. The value of the work could have been considered only academic at that time. Today these findings are being applied in clinical practice for the relief of painful and debilitating muscle contractures in patients with nerve and muscle disorders.

At the Institute of Psychiatry Leo developed an interest in mutant animals with neurological disorders, some possibly representing models of human disease. This interest continued at the Institute of Neurology and his reputation increased as more mutants were sent to him for investigation. Their study proved a fruitful source of topics for research projects by the many doctors and scientists who came to work as students in the department.

His appointment to the chair of neuropathology in 1976 produced a dramatic change in his life. His previous rather romantic vision of science changed suddenly to a more practical approach. The first challenge Leo had to face was not so much the re-organization of the department as its complete re-formation. And how well he did it. In one year, and certainly by the time the Institute moved into Queen Square House in 1978, the task was accomplished. Leo built a modern department in which new technology was matched with the people who could make the best use of it. Young doctors and scientists came from various parts of the world to work in his department. Many came from Brazil, some from Taiwan, and from Europe, but there were also many postgraduate students from the United Kingdom. Leo trained a number of senior registrars and lecturers, many of whom are now consultant neuropathologists in distinguished hospitals or medical schools - Rosemary Eames, Brian Harding, Seth Love, Catherine Keohane to mention a few.

All who came into contact with Leo quickly came to realize how important his family was to him. He married Myra in 1951 and they had two daughters and a son. It was a particular pride that his son, Michael, followed him into neuroscientific research. His wife was always close by, accompanying Leo to many parts of the world. It was therefore a tremendous blow when they discovered in 1986 that she was suffering from the illness which was eventually to prove fatal. There were short periods of hope that her disease could be checked and Leo’s early retirement reflected his wish to spend with her whatever little time was left. After Myra’s death in February 1994 his life seemed understandably to lose any meaning. As he partly recovered from his loss, illness struck him and all hopes for a happy and fulfilling retirement were dashed. One of his final tasks was the joint editorship, with J Hume Adams, of the fifth edition of Greenfields neuropathology, London, Edward Arnold, 1992, the bible of neuropathology. This remains the final testimony of his dedication and skills.

F Scaravilli

(Volume X, page 118)

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