Lives of the fellows

Patrick Playfair (Sir) Laidlaw

b.26 September 1881 d.19 March 1940
Kt(1935) MB BCh Cantab(1907) FRS(1927) *FRCP(1934)

‘P. P.’, as he was affectionately known to his many friends, was the son of Dr Robert Laidlaw of the Glasgow Medical Mission; his mother, née Elizabeth Playfair, was related to many eminent medical and scientific men, among them the first Baron Playfair, F.R.S. An attack of poliomyelitis at the age of three left him with a weakness in one leg which gave him increasing trouble in his later years. He went from Leys School, Cambridge, where he first met Henry Dale, to St. John’s College, Cambridge, with a scholarship, and was still an undergraduate when at twenty-three he published papers on anatomy and a minor classic work on haemoglobin derivatives (J. Physiol1904, 21, 464-72), the latter no doubt due to the influence of Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins at Guy’s Hospital.

Dale persuaded him to leave a demonstratorship in physiology for an appointment in the Wellcome Physiological Research Laboratories, where during the four years 1920-13 he carried out his most active and varied work, with a particular interest in the properties of histamine. Against his will he then went back to Guy’s as the Sir William Dunn lecturer in experimental pathology. He had little interest in the routine forced on him by the dearth of staff during World War I, while his shy nature, with its lack of self assertion and dislike of public speaking, hid from students his wealth of knowledge and capacity for careful work.

Nevertheless his excellent studies in the wide fields of physiology, pathology, bacteriology, pharmacology and biochemistry showed he was the man to initiate and direct the new ventures in virology for the Medical Research Council in 1922. His researches on dog-distemper led to two ways of immunisation against it. This discovery was recognised in the award of a Royal medal by the Royal Society in 1933, six years after it had elected him a fellow.

Then followed his distinguished work on the viral cause of influenza, and, although increasing disability forced him to take a less active part, he found time to collaborate with colleagues on an antigen from the tubercle bacillus, on some filterable but cultivable organisms of sewage, and on the cultivation of entamoeba histolytica.

In 1935 he gave the Linacre lecture, Epidemic influenza, a virus disease (Lancet, 1935, 1, 1118-24), and in 1938 the Rede lecture at Cambridge ‘Virus diseases and viruses’. Although he published, in all, seventy-four papers, he is best remembered for the readiness with which he passed to his colleagues his immense scientific knowledge while deputy director of the National Institute for Medical Research, in which appointment he succeeded S. R. Douglas in 1936. He died suddenly of heart failure at the age of fifty-eight. He never married.

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..."

[, 1940, 1, 551-2 (p); Guy's Hosp. Rep., 1940-41, 90, 1-15 (p); Lancet, 1940, 1, 623-4 (p); Nature (Lond.), 1940, 145, 580; Obit. Not. roy. Soc., 1939-41, 3, 427-47 (p), bibl.; D.N.B., 1931-40, 520-21.]

(Volume V, page 236)

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