Lives of the fellows

Albert Louis Latner

b.5 December 1912 d.10 December 1992
ARCS(1931) DIC(1932) BSc Lond(1932) MSc(1933) MB ChB Liverp(1939) MD(1948) FRIC(1953) MRCP(1956) DSC(1958) FRCPath(1963) FRCP(1964)

Albert Latner was one of the foremost clinical biochemists of his generation. The son of Harry Latner, a London mantle manufacturer, he was educated at Northdown College, Brighton, and Raine's Foundation School, London. As a bright 18-year old he secured a first class honours degree in chemistry at Imperial College, staying on to receive an MSc for his research on waxes, under the direction of A C Chibnall.

In 1933 he moved to Liverpool University to be appointed assistant lecturer in physiology, a post he held for three years. There he met Gertrude Franklin, a Liverpool medical student, and they married in 1936. For the next half century, until Gertrude's death in 1986, her native wit and intelligence complemented - and occasionally tempered -his mercurial brilliance. It was in the year of their wedding that Albert decided to study medicine. He completed his three clinical years with a string of distinctions and made a favourable impression on Henry (later Lord) Cohen [Munk's Roll, Vol.VII, p.106], establishing a relationship which developed into enduring respect and friendship. Having graduated, his reappointment to the physiology department as lecturer was cut short by war service, spent mainly in the Middle East in the RAMC as a specialist in pathology.

The postwar years were exciting for medicine; the importance of an understanding of the pathophysiological and biochemical basis of disease became increasingly appreciated. Latner’s inclinations and aspirations were in tune with the times. In 1946 he began his formal training in clinical biochemistry with his appointment as senior registrar in chemical pathology under Earl King at the Postgraduate Medical School. A year later he secured one of the country’s few lectureships in pathological chemistry - in the department of pathology at King’s College, Newcastle upon Tyne, then part of Durham University. It was for him a period of tension and frustration which ultimately proved to be fruitful.

The benefit to the patient of close links between clinician and chemical pathologist became increasingly apparent and Latner was able to exercise both his clinical acumen and his laboratory skills. He was an adroit and popular lecturer, sensitive to the needs and enthusiasms of Durham’s medical undergraduates. The result of hard work and intelligent research, his promotion to reader in medical biochemistry in 1955 was richly deserved. The professorship in clinical biochemistry naturally followed in 1962 - in what, by then, was a separate department in the newly independent University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

Throughout his professional life Albert Latner continued to preach the virtues of combining laboratory method and clinical practice. His formal academic qualifications reflected this commitment; their timing alternated almost precisely between those of science and medicine. He established a fruitful relationship between his department and the University's school of chemistry, enabling four successive registrars to take the unusual - if gruelling - step of gaining good honours degrees in chemistry while continuing with their clinical duties at the Royal Victoria Infirmary. In 1965 he inaugurated the MSc in clinical biochemistry, which provided an advanced introduction to the specialty for both medical and scientific graduates.

Latner was an acknowledged authority on a wide variety of subjects; many know of his contributions to specialized fields without being fully aware of the breadth of his experience. His MD thesis was concerned with the application of laboratory tests to the diagnosis and management of liver disease; he was the man behind the ‘Latner Cocktail’ used successfully for the management of hepatic coma. Collaborating with Charles Ungley [Munk’s Roll, Vol.V, p.427], clinical haematologist at the Royal Victoria Infirmary, he established himself as an authority on Vitamin metabolism, being responsible for a highly purified preparation of intrinsic factor - achievements recognized by the award of DSc by Liverpool University.

Working with Andrew Skillen, and with Gordon Dale, he developed the powerful techniques of gel electrophoresis and isoelectric focusing and applied them to the separation of proteins, especially the isoenzymes of alkaline phosphatase and the dehydrogenases, using them as tools to elucidate problems in the understanding and diagnosis of liver and heart disease. In later years he concentrated much of his research on changes in proteins and enzymes in cancer. With the generous financial support of the North of England Cancer Research Campaign he established and equipped a fine cancer research unit.

His research productivity was impressive but its very diversity led to criticism that he failed to capitalize on his discoveries, preferring to move on to some new and exciting topic. Essentially a laboratory man, he nevertheless possessed considerable clinical skills and an encyclopaedic medical knowledge, for which many of his colleagues and close personal friends had good reason to be grateful.

Latner was elected a Fellow of the College, a fellow of the College of Pathologists and of the Royal Institute of Chemistry. He was a founder member of the Association of Clinical Biochemistry, its chairman, 1958-61, and president, 1961-63. He was awarded the prestigious Wellcome Prize of the Association in 1976. He was also a member of the Clinical Chemistry section of IUPAC and a fellow of the American Academy of Clinical Biochemistry.

Albert Latner was a prolific writer. In addition to his high output of research publications, he had a knack of producing chapters and books that anticipated changes in contemporary clinical biochemistry. With Andrew W Skillen, he co-authored Isoenzymes in biology and medicine, London & New York, Academic Press, 1968 and he was responsible for the seventh edition of Canterow and Trumper’s Clinical biochemistry, the internationally recognized standard text on the subject. Oscar Bodansky and he co-edited Advances in clinical chemistry from 1941-84, until his wife’s ill health prevented him from continuing. Retirement in 1978 did not diminish his enthusiasm for research but Gertrude’s final illness took its toll.

One might speculate that he was never able to satisfy his sternest critic - himself - and that this tension was both a source of the driving force that was the key to his success and also the root cause of the frustration that was liable to well up and make him a difficult man to deal with. Although his garden played an increasingly important role in his later life, he continued to take a great interest - albeit more passive - in the interplay between science and medicine.

In 1990 he developed an obstructive biliary disease and died two years later, just five days after his 80th birthday. He had no children but he left behind, as a fitting monument to his indomitable spirit, the department he established and of which he was always justifiably proud.

G Dale

[Brit.med.J., 1993,306,266;The Independent, 17 Dec 1992]

(Volume IX, page 305)

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