Lives of the fellows

William Ewart Gye

b.11 August 1889 d.14 October 1952
BSc Lond(1906) MB ChB Edin(1912) MD Edin(1913) FRS(1938) *FRCP(1940)

William Ewart Bullock was born at Breaston in Derbyshire on 11th August 1889; he changed his name in 1919 to Gye, that of his first wife. His father, Charles Bullock, was a railway signalman and Gye was the only member of his family known to have attained scientific distinction. His mother was Ellen Elizabeth Prosser. She came from a Gloucester family, many of them freemen of the city of Gloucester. In his youth Gye had an insatiable zest for knowledge, and was a tireless worker. To attain his objective of becoming a worker in medical science, he had to overcome many handicaps, particularly financial ones. He was in his time a worker in a bicycle factory, an odd-job man on the railway, a stone-mason, a pupil teacher, a railway clerk and a cricket professional. Then he managed to enter University College, Nottingham, where he studied chemistry under Kipping and took a London B.Sc. After a further period of teaching he entered Edinburgh University as a medical student and gained a gold medal for his M.D. thesis in 1913.

As a result of meeting W. Cramer at Edinburgh he was appointed to the staff of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund under Bashford. Here he gained a most valuable understanding of many aspects of cancer in the early days of cancer research. But the First World War interrupted this work and he soon became a hospital pathologist in the Army with the rank of captain, working with Cramer on anaerobic infections of wounds. They showed that washed spores would often fail to initiate infection, but that toxins and things such as calcium salts would activate them and rupture the body’s local defences.

After the war Gye joined the staff of the National Institute for Medical Research at Hampstead, and worked on silicosis with E. H. Kettle. They revealed how the toxic action of silica was able to activate a tuberculous infection. Gye then turned to the study of the filterable sarcomata of fowls described by Peyton Rous in 1910. This discovery had made but little impact on the world of pathology. Most pathologists then argued that cancer could not have an infective cause; therefore either the fowl tumours were not true cancers, or the filterable cause was not a virus. Gye, expecting to find that the agent was chemical in nature, was soon convinced otherwise, and with W. J. Purdy made a series of observations revealing its similarity to other viruses. Rous had always felt a debt of gratitude to Gye for rescuing the fowl tumour-viruses from comparative oblivion and forcing the facts upon the attention of sceptics.

Filtrates of different fowl tumours proved highly specific in their action on tissues. Gye could not believe in an infinity of viruses each causing one type of tumour, and postulated a single virus depending for its activity on a ‘specific factor’ of host origin; this was thought to determine the specificity of its action. One readily sees how Gye’s earlier studies on activation of bacteria predisposed him to such a conception. At this time he collaborated also with J. E. Barnard who studied by ultraviolet microphotography the tumour-viruses which Gye believed he had cultivated. Their joint work was published in The Lancet (1925, 2, 120-17) in no little glare of publicity. But the methods described for separating ‘virus’ from ‘specific factor’ proved difficult to reproduce, and cultivation of the virus in a cell-free medium has not been confirmed by others.

This dramatic but disappointing episode in Gye’s career must not be allowed to hide the fact that he added a great deal to our understanding of cancer. It is ironical that though he failed to convince the world that mammalian tumours may have a virus as their cause, today, with the help of new techniques, virus-caused neoplasms of mice, mainly leukaemias, are being described one after another. Gye was a very able, eloquent and lucid talker, with great charm of manner. There is no doubt that he had considerable influence in dispelling prejudice against the idea that viruses may cause cancers.

In 1934 he was appointed director of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund’s laboratories, just removed to Mill Hill. Here work on tumours, mainly virus-tumours, was actively pursued, but so convinced was Gye of the truth of the virus-hypothesis that he gave scant encouragement to other approaches to the cancer problem. In his last years as director he showed, with J. Craigie and others, that tumours could retain their transplantability after being frozen to -79°C. or dried (Brit. J. Cancer, 1949, 3, 259-67). He believed that cells could not survive such treatment and that the results proved that a cell-free agent was causing the tumours; we know now that such a conclusion is not correct.

Gye’s first wife, Elsa, whom he married in 1913 and who bore him three sons, died in 1943. Five years later he married Ida Mann, then professor of ophthalmology in Oxford. When his heart began to trouble him in 1949 they moved to Perth in Western Australia. Here they were jointly concerned in organising a medical research laboratory until his death.

Gye was a delightful companion and the friend of a number of well-known figures in literature and politics. He was elected F.R.S, in 1938 and F.R.C.P, in 1940. He was a professor, later emeritus, of the Royal College of Surgeons.

Richard R Trail

* He was 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..."

[, 1952, 2, 944-6 (p), 1157; Lancet, 1952, 2, 834-5; Med.J.Aust., 1953, 1, 82-3; Nature (Lond), 1952, 170, 825; Obit. Not. roy. Soc., 1952-3, 8, 419-30 (p), bibl.; Times, 15 Oct. 1952.]

(Volume V, page 166)

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