Lives of the fellows

Joseph Graeme Humble

b.10 July 1913 d.10 June 1980
CVO(1955) MRCS LRCP(1937) MRCP(1959) FRCPath(1964) FRCP(1970)

Joseph Humble was born at Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, the son of Wensley Taylor Humble, a caterer of the town, and of Louisa Anne Humble, née Witham, the daughter of a publican. There is no record of any medical connection in the family at that time, nor in previous generations.

Joe Humble, as he was always called, was educated at the preparatory school to Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, Mansfield, but was later a pupil at Bedford Modern School. He enrolled as a pre-clinical medical student at King’s College, London, in 1932, and from 1934 to 1937 was a clinical student at Westminster Hospital at its previous site at Broad Sanctuary, opposite Westminster Abbey. He was thus one of the last generation of students to be trained in the old medical school and hospital.

Joe qualified in 1937 and for the next 41 years, until his retirement as emeritus professor, was continuously on the staff of Westminster Hospital and Medical School. He was house physician to the children’s department from June 1937 to January 1938, and for the remainder of his career was on the staff of the pathology, and later of the haematology departments, of the medical school, being junior assistant pathologist 1938—1939, acting assistant pathologist 1940-1946, haematologist 1946- 1949, senior lecturer in haematology (University of London) 1949—1964, reader in haematology 1964- 1972, and professor of haematology 1972— 1978.

Joe’s main interests in haematology were in the fields of leukaemia, aplastic anaemia, and marrow transplantation, but in addition he wrote many useful articles on other aspects of his specialty, e.g. The mechanisms of petechial haemorrhage formation’ Blood, 4, 69-75, 1949, using in vivo microscopical techniques; ‘Diphyllobothrium infestation and anaemia in Great Britain’ Brit. med. J., 2, 188, 1950, ‘A family illustrating the double inheritance of the sickle cell trait and of Mediterranean anaemia’ J. clin. Path., 7, 201, 1954, as well as many interesting and informative case reports.

In collaboration with RJV Pulvertaft, he published many articles on marrow culture, and the study of living cells by phase-contrast microcinematography. They were particularly interested in the interaction of lymphocytes and other cells, and first described the phenomenon named by them ‘emperipolesis’, in which the lymphocytes became adherent to other cells, or apparently passed over or into the interior of these cells. This work was greatly helped by the excellent department of medical photography at Westminster Medical School under the direction of Peter Hansell, an old friend of Joe’s.

Joe Humble’s enduring fame in haematology will undoubtedly rest on his pioneering work in marrow transplantation in this country. His interest was first alerted in the mid-1950s, when he developed techniques for obtaining and infusing marrow, and in methods of cryopreservation of marrow samples. On the clinical side, he was greatly helped by collaboration with KA Newton, consultant oncologist, and in the laboratory aspects of preservation of marrow by DE Pegg.

Marrow was obtained by aspiration from pelvic bones and sternum into heparinized tissue culture fluid. After removal of fat and particles capable of causing embolism, the concentrated cells were infused intravenously into the recipient, to settle spontaneously in the bone marrow. Cryopreservation was chiefly by rapid freezing of replicable cells in liquid nitrogen. These methods have resisted the changes imposed by time and modern refinements, and are still widely employed throughout the world.

In the early 1960s, Joe pioneered the techniques of autotransplantation in the management of malignant disease, but the use of marrow from donors was hampered by current lack of knowledge of tissue antibodies and immunity, and by the poor available methods for combating rejection episodes.

The break-through in hetero-transplants came in 1971, when transfer of marrow from a sib was successful in a case of immunodeficiency, and later from a father to an affected child. In 1973, success occurred in a transplant from a completely unrelated donor, proved potentially compatible by tissue typing techniques. Joe was actively engaged in improving and facilitating marrow transplantation in haematological diseases, cases of immunodeficiency, and in metabolic hereditary disorders in which essential enzymes were absent, until the time of his retirement in 1978. His skill, knowledge, and encouragement undoubtedly had a great influence in making Westminster Hospital and Medical School one of the leading centres for marrow transplantation in the world.

He was honoured by being created CVO in the New Year’s Honours list of 1955 for personal services to the Royal Family.

Joe Humble was a concise and conscientious teacher of his specialty. Many generations of Westminster graduates will remember with gratitude their excellent grounding in the important principles of haematology. He was a kind and gentle man, and was obviously often distressed at the serious prognosis of many of the blood diseases which were his main interest.

In his own student days, Joe was a keen sportsman, playing rugby for the Westminster team, and association football for the United Hospitals. In the cricket field, he was a skilled wicket keeper and later demonstrated his prowess in many staff-versus-student matches. His hobby was medical history, and in collaboration with P Hansell he published an excellent history of Westminster Medical School and Hospital. In his short retirement, he wrote the biography of James Guthrie, a distinguished Westminster graduate and Peninsular Army surgeon in Wellington’s forces.

He had a supremely happy married and family life. In 1942 he married Elsie May Hunt, the daughter of a farmer, who however was always referred to as Ann Humble. They had three sons, one of whom is, like his father, a specialist in pathology, and another a gifted historian and writer.

It is no secret that Joe died of chronic lymphatic leukaemia, a fact published in several obituaries. The diagnosis must have been a great shock to him, as it was found when testing a new Coulter counter with a blood sample obtained from himself. Joe remained in good health until his retirement in 1978, but sadly did not long enjoy a much deserved retirement. The disease steadily reduced his powers of immunity, and his last year was marred by repeated and ever more serious bacterial and fungal infections. His fortitude in the face of adversity was a great example to his friends and colleagues. It was a deep pleasure to Joe to attend for a short period the occasion of the 100th Anniversary of Westminster Dining Club, but his obvious illhealth was a sad reminder to his many friends and admirers that his days were numbered. For many of us, he epitomized the Westminster man - trained at Westminster, married to a Westminster nurse, his whole working career without interruption carried out at Westminster, where he finally died. For almost half a century in work and in play he added distinction, lustre and warmth to the life of the School and Hospital which he so loved.

MD Milne

[, 1980, 280, 1624; Times, 14 June 1980]

(Volume VII, page 284)

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