Lives of the fellows

Ronald Epey Lane

b.2 July 1897 d.27 March 1995
CBE(1957) MB BS Lond(1923) MRCS LRCP(1923) MRCP(1925) FRCP(1939) MD(1949)

That his father Elijah Epey Lane had been a schoolmaster was recognized by many an occupational physician when Ronald Lane returned the drafts of their research papers heavily marked. Whatever they may have thought at the time they learnt the importance of clarity of expression, being taught the lesson that good English’ was not a superficial gloss to be added when the paper was revised but the natural result of clear thinking.

Born in Margate at the end of the last century, Ronald left Simon Langton School, Canterbury, during the First World War to join the Royal Flying Corps and was posted to the Middle East. After demobilization he entered Guy’s Hospital Medical School, where he qualified in 1923 and two years later obtained his membership of the College. After house posts at Guy’s, he entered general practice in Nottingham Lane, Manchester, and it was during this period that he became interested in industrial medicine. Two years later he applied for a post as medical inspector of factories, but was beaten on experience by E R A Merewether [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.335]. Soon afterwards he was invited by Exide Batteries, just outside Manchester, to help them with a serious problem of lead poisoning. The factory inspectorate was exerting strong pressure and Ronald Lane came in at the sharp end. At this time there was very little information to be obtained on the subject of industrial medicine but, around 1927, Sir Thomas Legge gave a series of lectures on the subject at Manchester University. Ronald wished to seize this opportunity to discuss problems at his factory but, to his disappointment, at the time Sir Thomas was more interested in looking at the watercolours in an adjacent gallery.

Ronald Lane never made the mistake of going to the factory medical department to ‘do a few medicals’, as did so many others both then and since. He went into the workshops, for he wanted to prevent lead poisoning, not simply to make an early diagnosis. He assessed the effects of lead on blood formation by counting the stippled cells and its effect on the nervous system by changes in the chronaxie. Importantly, he measured the amount of lead in the air of the workplace and was thus able to recommend that the workplace atmosphere should contain not more than 2mg of lead per 10m3. These and other measures virtually eliminated lead poisoning from the electric accumulator industry. This pioneering work formed the material for Lane’s Milroy lecture in 1947.

He was appointed an honorary physician to Salford General Hospital in 1935 but, unusually at that time, earned his living not from private practice but from his industrial work. He continued as a consultant physician in the NHS until his retirement. During the 1930s he was invited to join the Industrial Health Research Board (IHRB), which had been established during the First World War as the Industrial Fatigue Research Board and continued with the wider remit of problems in industrial health. It subsequently became the occupational health committee of the Medical Research Council. It was during his time at the IHRB that Ronald first met Ernest Bevin.

The Second World War led to far reaching changes in British industry. The massive switch to armaments manufacture (light and heavy engineering) and to explosives manufacture (the chemical industry) was accompanied by a sustained maximum output in factories where the ‘black out’ seriously reduced ventilation. Lane had been appointed honorary consultant physician to the Ministry of Supply and cases of severe anaemia and toxic hepatitis from trinitrotoluene (TNT) were admitted to his hospital beds. The call up of all fit men led to substantial changes in the working population. Women unused to factory work and older men were drafted, often compulsorily, into the factories. Many men and women who had previously been considered unfit were drafted back into work. To meet the medical problems of these great changes Ernest Bevin, now Minister of Labour, introduced an order requiring factories to engage doctors and nurses. Lane, who had recently been appointed assistant honorary lecturer to the Manchester Medical School, had no difficulty in persuading the university to put on training courses for the doctors and nurses and he got Ernest Bevin to come and lecture. About this time, together with Donald Hunter [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.288] and a few others, he persuaded the editor of the BMJ to launch the British Journal of Industrial Medicine, now Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

In 1945 the Nuffield Foundation founded a department of industrial medicine in Manchester and Ronald Lane was appointed as the first professor. The new department was part of the university department of medicine. An out-patient clinic was established, with Lane insisting that it should be held on Saturday mornings so that patients who were at work could attend without loss of time and wages. The Saturday morning clinic at the Manchester Royal Infirmary became widely popular - if not always with the wives of staff members - and it continued until Lane’s retirement some 19 years later.

He was equally innovative outside the hospital; believing that doctors trained in industrial medicine at Manchester and elsewhere should have a common qualification, he started, with others, the two diplomas of industrial health, conjoint and apothecaries. He was appointed to an advisory committee to the Ministry of Labour and another committee, in the Ministry of Pensions, dealt with the ‘prescription’ of new industrial diseases for statutory benefit. The latter was soon absorbed into the industrial injuries scheme as part of the new Welfare State. Lane always regarded the industrial injuries advisory committee as his favourite.

To make the most of its opportunities the new university department needed occupational hygienists to measure the physical and chemical factors in the work environment. With funds from the Nuffield Foundation a new occupational hygiene section was established early in 1962, with Ted King from Donald Hunter’s former MRC department.

In his 60s Ronald Lane delivered a seminal Alfred Herbert lecture to the Society of Production Engineers entitled ‘The doctor in industry: factory medical services’, published in The Production Engineer in 1961. Because it was not published in a medical journal it still remains unknown to most occupational physicians. In the paper he challenged the ‘Appointed factory doctor service’ of the factory department which had been set up 130 years before. That paper gave the impetus for a reform of the statutory medical supervision of health at work and led to the establishment of the employment medical advisory service.

He retired from his post as a consultant physician at the age of 65 but continued at Manchester University for a further two years. At this stage, when many shed extra work, he was induced to take on the editorship of the British Journal of Industrial Medicine. His junior staff were landed with a fair amount of proof reading but were told that it was beneficial to have to read good research papers carefully. His own last paper appeared in 1991, when he was 94, in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine. His co-author, himself an emeritus professor and a former editor of the BJIM, sat beside his old chief watching while his early drafts were corrected and clarified.

Ronald had married Winifred Emily Ticker, daughter of a wine merchant, in 1923 and they had a son and a daughter. His son Peter, a dermatologist, is now emeritus professor of medicine in Canada and his grandson is a resident in ophthalmology. On arriving in Manchester in 1927, Ronald took up golf in his leisure time and on his own admission became addicted. He devoted many hours to practice and claimed that this enabled him to return fresh to work. His handicap was soon sufficiently low for him to enter the English Amateur Championship but, on finding that it was not his class, he contented himself with club golf. He continued what he termed ‘his deep devotion’ to the game and at 95 he was an honorary member of two golf clubs - but was reduced to nine holes at each one every week.

In early 1990 he suffered a minor coronary thrombosis. He continued to be lively, interested and courteous to the end and died peacefully after a brief illness.

W R Lee

[Brit.med.J., 1995,311,624-5; The Times, 15 Apr 1995; The Independent, 31 Mar 1995]

(Volume X, page 288)

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