Lives of the fellows

George Millar Edington

b.18 April 1916 d.26 January 1981
CBE(1970) MBE(1958) MB ChB Glasg(1939) DTM&H(1949) DCP(1951) MD(1953) MRCP(1960) FRCPath(1963) FRCP(1969) Hon DSc Ibadan(1972)

George Millar Edington was born in Glasgow, where his father, George Edington, was a merchant, and his mother, Catherine Murray, was the daughter of John McDougall, a schoolteacher who held a headmastership.

George’s schooling, both primary and secondary, was at Glasgow High School, where he captained the school at tennis and played for two years in the first fifteen at rugby. He had no problems in obtaining entry to the Faculty of Medicine at Glasgow University in 1934. During his undergraduate years he played rugby not for the University but for Glasgow High School Former Pupils, which was at that time one of the leading Scottish clubs. He graduated in 1939, and subsequently spent two years as a resident house officer at Stobhill Hospital in Glasgow, before joining the RAMC. He served first with a Field Ambulance (No 147) in the UK, and as RMO with the First Battalion of the Highland Light Infantry, but the subsequent years (1943 to 1946) were spent in Burma with field dressing stations and the 5th Field Ambulance. He was demobilied in 1946, and it was then that he joined the Colonial Medical Service and entered on his formal training in tropical medicine and pathology, gaining his DTM&H in 1949.

In 1948 George married Mary Jane Hamilton, whom he had met when she was working on the cabin staff of aeroplanes in which George travelled so frequently between London and West Africa. They remained a devoted, though childless, couple for the remainder of his life.

George was posted to the staff of the Medical Research Institute in the Gold Coast and in 1950 he was appointed specialist pathologist in charge of the Institute. It was during the six years when he held that appointment that he and his colleagues described for the first time the pathological nature of sickle-cell disease. There can be no doubt that it was the publication of these papers from the Gold Coast that triggered off world wide research on this subject, with outstandingly important results.

In 1956, when the Gold Coast became independent (Ghana), George Edington was released from the Colonial Medical Service, and in 1958, in belated recognition of his service in the Gold Coast, he was awarded the MBE.

On returning to England in 1957, George obtained an appointment as consultant pathologist at the Whiston and Rainhill Hospitals in the Liverpool Region. He did not enjoy his stay in this appointment, for he missed the opportunities for research, teaching and organization that had dominated his work in Africa, and confessed to being bored with purely routine diagnostic histopathology. He had developed a real love and understanding of the native populations of West Africa, and back in England he missed the sense of pioneering that his work in Africa had afforded.

In these circumstances it was not surprising that when, in 1958, the chair of pathology in the young University of Ibadan, in Nigeria, became vacant he jumped at the opportunity, and took up the appointment with enthusiasm. At that time the Ibadan Medical School was just gaining its independence from London University, and the ambitious University College Hospital was nearing completion. Edington saw it as his task to set up a modern team of doctors and scientists to bring the best of service and research in laboratory medicine to West Africa, but with the main intention of training the local population to be able to take on these duties themselves. High quality undergraduate teaching was amongst his objectives from the start. In the early days he attracted active young workers from the UK and other western countries to estabish teams covering all the appropriate aspects of laboratory medicine, but long before he left Ibadan he and his colleagues had been able to train up African graduates to take over an increasing proportion of the work.

The civil war which broke out in Nigeria in 1968 led to serious disturbances at Ibadan University, as a result of which Edington was appointed as acting vice-chancellor. This appointment demonstrated the complete confidence that the University had in his integrity and ability, and Edington was able to restore order and keep the University going efficiently during a most difficult three-year period. It was in recognition of this outstanding work that he was promoted to CBE in 1970.

By 1971 peace was restored in Nigeria, and the reorganized Republic was opening up new universities in many of the more outlying states. A new vice-chancellor was appointed at Ibadan, and Edington accepted the challenge of moving to the chair of pathology in the recently established medical school at Ahmadu Bello University in the northern state of Zaria. In a remarkably short time medical graduates - now trained specifically with local practice in mind - were being produced. Soon Edington felt that he could hand over the department to Nigerians, and so he accepted, at the age of 62, the further challenge of moving even further north to take up the post of provost and professor of pathology at the embryonic College of Medical Sciences which was being established there in 1979. The dual responsibilities of teaching in his own subject and of organizing the establishment of clinical departments must have been formidable. Much of Edington’s time was spent in staff recruitment, and it was while travelling in the USA in 1980 on a combined scientific and recruitment exercise, that symptoms of his final illness developed.

Regrettably these symptoms were neglected till the tour was completed and brought him to London, where he naturally reported to the Hospital for Tropical Diseases. An advanced colonic carcinoma was disclosed at operation, and after a stormy post-operative period George was able to join his wife at the pied-à-terre which they maintained at Bexhill, on the Sussex coast. They were able to enjoy some weeks of autumn sunshine together, but George was far from well, and in October he was admitted to University College Hospital and found to have peritoneal spread of the tumour. Only palliative treatment was possible and George soon understood that he had not long to live. Nevertheless, he always mustered a smile to greet his visitors, and was full of praise for the doctors and nurses looking after him. Four days before the end, he was keen to know if one of his papers was in the current number of a journal.

One of George’s most remarkable achievements was the way he maintained his personal research and educational work, in spite of the enormous load of administrative and organizational work in which he was involved during the last 12 years of his life. His published papers exceeded a hundred in number, and he contributed to the proceedings at countless meetings and conferences in all parts of the world. His priority in describing the pathology of sickle-cell anaemia has already been mentioned. Other subjects to which he made notable contributions included cancer epidemiology in Africa, Burkitt’s tumour and other lymphomas, tumours of liver, bowel, uterus and breast, endomyocardial fibrosis, and parasitic disease and infections, including Lassa fever. His textbook (published with HM Gilles in 1969) on Pathology in the Tropics has become a standard work.

All who visited the Edingtons in Africa will recall the happy atmosphere of their home, and particularly the total absence of ‘colour consciousness’.

Sir Theodore Fox

[Brit.med.J., 1981, 282, 577, 828, 1081; Lancet, 1981, 1, 452, 567, 623]

(Volume VII, page 177)

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