Lives of the fellows

Ronald Ivan Norreys Greaves

b.15 July 1908 d.29 August 1990
BA Cantab(1930) MRCS LRCP(1934) MB BChir(1935) MD(1945) MRCP(1964) FRCP(1968)

One might have described Ronald Greaves as an avant courier, a philosophy which he may have acquired from his chief and mentor, Henry Roy Dean [Munk’s Roll, Vol.V, p.98]. Both men envisaged aspects of research in pathology which were unpopular at the time but, as it turned out, were fundamental. Greaves tackled the problems of preservation of proteins and cells by the novel methods of cryobiology. The results of his work were far reaching in practical medicine and in an understanding of cellular structure and function.

Born in Leicester, Ronald was the son of a clergyman, Arthur Ivan Greaves, an immensely good-looking man who preached magnificently and married a charming Protestant Southern Irish girl of Huguenot descent. At that time he was vicar of St Peter’s Church, Leicester, and he later became Bishop of Grimbsy. Sir Cyril Clarke, who was also born in Leicester and is a past president of the College, remembers his family’s friendship with the Greaves family; his mother adored the vicar, his father was much attracted by the Irish humour of Mrs Greaves, and his younger sister knew Ronald well. She said ‘... when he was 10 he asked me if I would marry him but I can’t remember how I replied.’ He also points out that early this century Havelock Ellis [Munk’s Roll, Vol.V, p.121] looked at the backgrounds of British men and women of distinction trying to find out what they had in common - but only one factor stood out and that was having a father who was a parson: A study of British genius, London, Hurst and Blackett, 1904. Although everyone can see reasons for this without knowing any science - parsons tend to choose good wives and bring their children up properly, well educated, with good moral standards and not too rich -he knows of nothing in DNA sequences which can possibly give evidence of any of these traits.

Ronald’s academic ability was manifest at Uppingham School and continued to be shown throughout his career. From Clare College, Cambridge, he went on to study clinical medicine at St Mary’s Hospital in London, where he was awarded the Cheadle gold medal. He returned to Cambridge in 1935 as a university demonstrator in a newly created department of pathology. His academic achievement was crowned by the award of the Raymond Horton Smith prize for his doctoral thesis; being the best MD thesis submitted that year. He shared the distinction of being among the early members of H R Dean's staff. The first was James Henry Dible [Munk's Roll, Vol.VI, p.149], in Dean’s days at Manchester. Greaves and Dible remained life-long friends and Dible’s shrewd, critical approach to the science of pathology was often reflected by Ronald Greaves. In 1936 Ronald married Anne Bedingfeld, the daughter of a tea planter, and they had one child - a daughter, Jenny.

The newly appointed demonstrator was given the task of preparing antisera for teaching purposes. At first this did not appear to be an inspiring job, but Greaves made it so. He saw the possible advantages of preserving these sera to avoid the tedious task of preparing fresh supplies for every occasion. This is where his major contribution to pathology began. The problem was to achieve simultaneous freezing and drying of blood plasma. His skills in electronics and physics enabled him to design equipment to do this. He was fortunate to have the assistance of an able laboratory technician, Frank Mitchell, who seemingly could construct anything out of nothing.

On his return to Cambridge he was made a Fellow of Gonville and Caius College. Despite the fact that his research work was beginning to assume national importance, he found time to work in the College and to teach the numerous medical students who were characteristic of Caius.

Plasma preservation was likely to play an important role in wartime when many casualties might require transfusion. On the outbreak of war in 1939, he directed the Medical Research Council’s plasma drying unit. Dried plasma saved many lives and Greaves was the main contributor to the success of this venture. It is strange that he never received the national recognition that he so richly deserved for this work. Those of us who knew him well realized that his main preoccupation was his science, the performing of well designed experiments and the communication of his skills to his many students. Honours did not concern him; the only award that pleased him greatly was his election to the Fellowship of the College.

After the war he returned to academic work in Cambridge and was appointed a lecturer in pathology in 1945, and subsequently a reader in bacteriology. He continued his work based on the concept that completely dried proteins were resistant to heat and cold, extending his studies into the preservation of living cells. He was able to preserve bacteria indefinitely by freezing and drying. This discovery revolutionized the work of the National Collection of Type Cultures where, in the past, repeated subculturing of organisms was necessary in order to preserve the collection of bacteria.

His other great interest was immunology. Several research students have benefited from his guidance and vision in this rapidly growing field. He once remarked that Macfarlane Burnet’s [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VIII, p.68] little book The clonal selection theory of acquired immunity, Nashville, Vanderbilt University Press, 1959, was perhaps the most important concept of the age. He was right.

Greaves was adept at provoking scientific argument and discussion. The daily coffee club in the department was attended by many, including R M Fry, J Boissard and A N Drury [Munk's Roll, Vol.VII, p.168], and was a regular treat for those of us starting careers in pathology. He regularly attended the Medical Research Club in London and the Graduates Science Club in Cambridge. Like his predecessor H R Dean, everything about disease interested him. As well as all this, he continued to work for Caius and was also a member of the board of governors of the United Cambridge Hospitals. This was a busy job as Addenbrooke’s Hospital prepared to move to its new site in Hills Road and reorganization of the NHS was underway. He successfully supervised the incorporation of NHS pathologists into the department at a time when the pathological services of the hospital were growing rapidly.

His work in cryobiology continued to move forward towards the preservation of larger organisms. He succeeded with the occasional protozoa, but no one has as yet solved the problem for higher organisms. A side effect of his work was the use of cryosurgery in the treatment of tumours, including those of the brain. The presidency of the International Society of Cryobiology was a reward for his internationally recognized work in this field.

Greaves became professor of pathology in 1962. He reorganized many aspects of the department but still maintained the facilities for each member of the staff to pursue individual interests and lines of research. Courses for Part I and Part II pathology were, in his view, the principal pillars of departmental teaching. He revised and strengthened them without changing the fundamental approach to the teaching of preclinical pathology in Cambridge. He was a good teacher and managed to inject new ideas in formal lectures and in informal discussions. He had a happy knack of making any research problem appear to be the main object of his concern.

Outwardly, Greaves appeared to be a calm, reserved character but those who knew him well were familiar with his dry sense of humour and his concern for all members of staff who worked with him. Outside pathology, he loved gardening and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of horticultural matters. I had the good fortune to live next door and much of my success in the garden stemmed from Ronald’s critical but kind advice. He knew a lot about wine and was pleased with his order of the Chevaliers du Vin which he received in Lyon.

Ronald Greaves was the fifth professor of pathology in Cambridge. They were all different; they all had different interests and ambitions. Greaves was equal to the efforts of his predecessors and his own work added to the galaxy of talents that they all gave to Cambridge.

G A Gresham

[Brit.med.J., 1990,301,663; Times, 1 Sept 1990; The Daily Telegraph, 8 Sept 1990; Memorial Service Address, 6 Nov 1990]

(Volume IX, page 207)

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