Lives of the fellows

James Adams Barrowman

b.4 June 1936 d.22 September 1991
BSc Lond(1958) MBChB(1961) MRCP(1964)PhD(1966) FRCP(1981) FRCPC(1977) FACP(1980)

Jim Barrowman was an Edinburgh man, carrying the accent and attitudes of his birthplace with him across the world until the end of his life. He was educated at George Watson’s College and trained in medicine at the University of Edinburgh, where he also graduated with honours in physiology. It was the latter together with his post-registration appointment to Bill Sircus’ department in Edinburgh that proved to be the formative influences in an impressive and creative career. The decision to abandon clinical medicine for physiology was surprising for an individual whose clinical training had been crowned with medals in psychiatry and surgery (two disciplines that did not prove of lasting interest to him) and who had proceeded with ease to membership of the College. At that time he was influenced by fears, which were totally unfounded, that his health would not be equal to a clinical career.

His former physiology teacher, Kenneth Roberts, had moved to the London Hospital medical college to take up the readership in physiology and Jim joined him as a PhD student. His thesis, published m 1966, was on intestinal lymph flow and this was an interest which remained with him thereafter. It was not only his work that went well at the London Hospital; it was there that he met and married Gwynedd Price, who was at that time a physiotherapy student. Together they moved to Sweden, where Jim took up a post-doctoral fellowship in Bengt Borgstrom’s department. This proved to be a happy and creative period in every sense; their first child was born there, Jim extended his range of interests to the lipolytic enzymes of the pancreas and managed to master written and spoken Swedish.

Back in London in 1968, he was appointed senior lecturer in the department at The London and at first all went well. His commitment as a teacher was much valued by students and colleagues and particularly by Kenneth Cross (q.v.), then professor of physiology. Cross was also an outstanding clinical scientist who was a strong advocate of the theory that preclinical students should be taught by teachers with clinical qualifications. Jim's research moved to the trophic effects of gastrointestinal hormones on the gut, at that time an area of considerable interest. He also became an active associate editor of the Drug and Therapeutic Bulletin.

This was a time when the preclinical and clinical departments at The London were closely intertwined and Jim made many friends among the clinical staff. Perhaps because of this he became less happy about having accepted a career on the sidelines of clinical medicine. Also the financial rewards of basic scientists were diminishing when compared with their clinical counterparts and Jim’s domestic responsibilities imposed increasing financial burdens. In 1971, with an eye upon the future well-being of his family - then happily expanding in a period house in Blackheath - and for his own intellectual satisfaction, he moved back into clinical medicine. He became a lecturer in the medical unit at The London and fortunately for him this was only shortly before the arrival of John Lennard-Jones, who was recruited to expand gastroenterology. Jim was a natural choice as lecturer in the newly founded academic unit. For the time being he had to abandon his research in favour of a busy clinical schedule but he continued to work on his monograph The physiology of the gastrointestinal lymphatic system which was published by Cambridge University Press in 1978, for the Physiological Society.

Aware of the intense competition for consultant posts and the fact that they offered few research opportunities, also conscious of an age handicap from his years in physiology, it was not surprising that his thoughts turned to a career across the Atlantic. The choice of Memorial University in Newfoundland might seem odd but his Nordic personality was well adapted to the perpetual fogs of the Grand Banks and he had a strong liking for lobsters. Perhaps more pertinent, he had been preceded to St Johns by his former mentor, Kenneth Roberts, and by two other old colleagues from Whitechapel. The weeks before his departure were marred by the tragic death of his youngest child, borne by both Jim and Gwynedd with great fortitude, yet eventually they departed, with their three surviving children, for a new life in which he was to realize his true potential.

Jim’s training in gastroenterology had been less than intense and he arrived at Memorial to find that he would be expected to take entire responsibility for the practice of this specialty. His first years were predominately devoted to sharpening his clinical skills, gaining the Canadian fellowship and rapidly advancing to a point where he became a respected and valued clinician. Gratified as he was by the mastery of his practice it had always been his intention to resume research and he lost little time in setting up a laboratory which proved to be remarkably productive. He had over 100 peer-reviewed papers, as well as 40 chapters and monographs, and most of this work came from his Newfoundland years. He developed a particularly productive collaboration with Granger and Kvietys, physiologists at Mobile, Alabama, with whom he published Clinical gastrointestinal physiology, Philadelphia, Saunders, 1985. He much appreciated occasional visits to the deep south of the USA, as a relief from the rigours of the Newfoundland climate. He became widely recognized in North America, being elected a Fellow of the American College and appointed to the editorial board of the American Journal of Physiology. He achieved, without apparent difficulty, the rare combination of being both an expert clinican and a significant basic scientist. His contribution to the Handbook of physiology on gastrointestinal lymph 1989 is, and will doubtless remain, a landmark review on the subject.

He managed to retain contact with old friends in the UK with occasional visits - often at the request of pharmaceutical companies among whom he was much respected as a consultant - and also at the annual Digestive Disease Week of the American Gastroenterological Association. His most important visit to London was to receive the fellowship of the College, that seemed to seal his acceptance among his peers.

Jim took great pride in his family. His children grew up to follow successful careers and his wife, who had at first resumed her profession in Newfoundland, followed a new career in biochemistry after gaining a master’s degree.

Yet there were dark clouds. Jim was dogged by occasional bouts of melancholy and self-doubt; a contemporary has written that he ‘. . . was on occasion uncertain of the worth of his contributions to medicine and physiology. This uncertainty was not for one moment shared by any of his colleagues . . .’. These were moods that seemed to pass quickly and he survived vicissitudes such as a hip replacement with Gaelic equanimity. It was, nevetheless, in such a mood - three weeks after returning from a happy and fruitful sabbatical period in Marseilles - that he took his own life. The shock of this tragic event, which devastated family, friends and colleagues, should not - and will not - obscure the lasting contributions that he made to clinical practice, education, and perhaps above all to the pursuit of scientific knowledge.

D L Wingate

(Volume IX, page 29)

<< Back to List