Lives of the fellows

James William (Sir) Howie

b.31 December 1907 d.17 March 1995
Kt(1969) MB ChB Aberd(1930) MD(1937) MRCP(1957) FRFPS(1957) FRCP Glasg(1962) FRCP(1963) FRCPath(1964) Hon LLD Aberd(1969) Hon ARCVS(1977) FRCP Edin( 1980)

James Howie was born at Oldmeldrum, Aberdeenshire. His father was a farm manager and an auctioneer and was, by all accounts, a hard man. James did not have an easy childhood, but he had the great advantage of a sound preparatory schooling at Laurencekirk and secondary education at Robert Gordon’s College, Aberdeen. He commented favourably on the rigours of physical training in the cold north as a preparation for the challenges of life and he acquired from his heritage a remarkable capacity for hard work, a great love of language, a respect for precision, a daunting integrity and an abiding faith. We are indebted to him for all that he did for medical microbiology and for pathology and medicine in the wider sense. Although he held many powerful positions he was forever an enthusiast but not a power seeker. He had an infectious enthusiasm for a good plan. "Yes, yes!" he would say as if to hurry the speaker to a conclusion that he already foresaw, "Let’s do it now!".

He graduated with honours at Aberdeen Medical School and, in 1935, he married Winifred Mitchell who held a first class honours degree in agriculture. Howie celebrated by gaining honours for his MD thesis in 1937. In due course their sons, John and Peter, were to become professors respectively of general practice in Edinburgh and obstetrics in Dundee. Their daughter Jean was to marry a senior schoolmaster. The Howie family had a deep commitment to teaching and learning and to the service of medicine. To this James added much willing service to his church and a lifelong interest in golf.

After postgraduate resident medical posts in Aberdeen he sought clinical experience in infectious diseases at Belvidere Fever Hospital, Glasgow. He became an assistant pathologist at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary in 1933 and an assistant bacteriologist at the Western Infirmary, Glasgow, from 1935 to 1938. He then returned to more senior bacteriological posts at Aberdeen. During the Second World War he served with the RAMC in Nigeria, where he held the rank of major, and was in charge of the 56th General Hospital Laboratory, Ibadan, from 1941 to 1943. He was then seconded to the staff of the director of pathology at the War Office, London, where he learned much of the Civil Service. This was to stand him in good stead in his later administrative assignments, when he formed a most productive alliance with Sir George Godber, the chief medical officer.

Back in civilian life, he was head of the bacteriology department at the Rowett Research Institute, Aberdeen, where he gained much experience in research methods. He subsequently took up the chair of bacteriology at Glasgow University Medical School where - as he recounted vividly in the series of articles written in his retirement for the British Medical Journal - he spent twelve of the happiest years of his life. The articles were later published as a book entitled Portraits from memory, London, BMJ Memoir Club, 1988.

At Glasgow he built up a dedicated team of microbiologists and laboratory workers who warmed to his leadership. He worked hard to establish links between the laboratory and the clinicians, and he encouraged a liaison that is now taken for granted by those concerned with aspects of infection and cross-infection. He headed a MRC working party to define and resolve the important problems associated with inefficient hospital sterilizers, and he played a part in the creation of the Communicable Diseases (Scotland) Unit at Ruchill Hospital, Glasgow, which contributes very significantly to Scotland’s epidemiological surveillance of infection and infectious diseases. Although assuredly Scottish, always unmistakably and at times doggedly so, he was not blinkered. He called attention to Scotland’s parochialism and to its vulnerability in matters concerning public health and infection. He considered that the poor communication between Scottish medical schools and their associated laboratories resulted in a rather haphazard epidemiological intelligence system, and that a lack of a Scottish equivalent of the English Public Health Laboratory Service was a dangerous deficiency. Indeed, Scotland still lacks an integrated laboratory service and is sadly behind the times in this context.

In Glasgow he is remembered as a skilled teacher and presenter, and a very able chairman. By his personality and example he was able to pull his team together and drive it firmly but with an understanding and thoughtfulness that commanded loyalty and much affection. He loved good stories and he had splendid sense of humour; when the occasion demanded it there was a hint of severity in his smile indicating that he was keeping the score, and he was a gracious and persistent adversary in debate.

In 1963 he accepted the post of director of the Public Health Laboratory Service in England, which he held until he retired ten years later. This meant working from a London base, which he did not favour, but he put all of his remarkable resources of energy, experience, diplomacy and leadership into the task and he made huge progress. In parallel with this demanding assignment he worked with other senior colleagues to establish what became the Royal College of Pathologists. This body was to be a major force in the development and refinement of standards of training and practice in the various branches of clinical laboratory medicine that are fundamental to present day clinical investigation and care. Soon after his retirement he was obliged to join forces with many senior pathologists across Britain to defend the PHLS against government forces that seemed bent on dismantling it. There were many anxious months before the maintenance of the structure of this wonderful organization - which is held in very high regard worldwide - was assured. It is a lasting tribute to the successive directors and staff of the PHLS in England that the service survived. No doubt James sensed the ingratitude, ignorance and insensitivity of the political times in which we live for he wrote: "I pray that no misguided tinkering destroys this beautiful thing through so-called planners … not understanding it."

In 1978 a committee headed by James Howie produced a code of practice for the prevention of infection in clinical laboratories and postmortem rooms. This followed the work of Sir George Godber’s team on the categorization of dangerous pathogens. The Howie code, as it came to be called, obliged all workers in clinical laboratory work to review their practices and put their several houses in order with regard to perceived infection hazards. The code was practical, rational and uncompromising, and it changed our laboratory practices beyond recognition.

James Howie's professional standing was impressive. He held the Fellowships of all the Royal Colleges of Physicians - London, Edinburgh and Glasgow - and he was respectively president of the College of Pathologists (from 1966 to 1969); the British Medical Association (from 1969 to 1970); the Association of Clinical Pathologists (from 1972 to 1973); and latterly of the Institute of Sterile Supplies. He was the BMA gold medallist in 1984. He was honorary physician to HM the Queen (from 1965 to 1968) and was knighted in 1969 for his outstanding services to medicine. In the same year he was awarded an honorary LLD degree by Aberdeen University and, in 1977, an honorary ARCVS degree.

Despite the pressures of his professional commitments he was a firm supporter of his church and had a deep interest and involvement in the wider church. He held various senior offices in the Church of Scotland and he felt strongly that faith was of paramount importance in his life. He held that life is too full and too precious to be devalued by the pursuit of things that are not worth while and he had a philosophy of studied negligence - putting aside trifling bureaucratic and other distractions that are the enemies of promise and fulfilment. He liked classical music, could not stand the noise that passes for modern popular music, talked eagerly about malt whiskies and roast beef, and good management. He was passionately keen on golf, holding that it was a way of life rather than a game. When he was 77 he got a hole in one at the short 15th at Bruntsfield, Edinburgh, and he repeated the feat at the same hole three months later. He said that this was more encouraging than one could imagine. In his early retirement he was still a dynamo. His remarkable skill as an editor and writer did not fail him and he was sought out to do innumerable services for all sorts of causes. He had always been on good terms with the senior editors of medical publications such as the British Medical Journal and The Lancet, which had been important when the pathologists sought formal recognition for their college. In Portraits from memory he shows his ability as a shrewd observer and his frankness and insight as a historian. The announcement of his death in the local Aberdeenshire press wrongly reported that he did his medical studies at Edinburgh. This error would have annoyed him as he was a stickler for accuracy, punctuality, courtesy and care. He loved Aberdeen and had a very warm place in his heart for Glasgow, but he was never really an Edinburgh man.

James Howie set a courageous example, he was effective, industrious and precise, and he did much to make clinical laboratory medicine better and safer.

J G Collee

[Brit.med.J., 1995,310,865; Bull.Roy.Coll.Path., 1995,92,10-11; The Times, 7 Apr 1995; The Daily Telegraph, 6 Apr 1995]

(Volume X, page 233)

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