Lives of the fellows

Sylvia Dorothy Lawler

b.15 January 1922 d.17 January 1996
MB BS Lond(1945) MD(1949) MRCPath(1965) MRCP(1972) FRCPath(1972) FRCP(1985)

Sylvia Lawler qualified in medicine in 1945 from University College Hospital, taking a fellow’s gold medal. After a year as a house officer at University College Hospital, she joined the renowned MRC Blood Group Research Unit at the Lister Institute to work as a research student with R R Race [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VIII, p.403] and Ruth Sanger. In 1949 she moved to the Galton Laboratory, University College, London, first as a research assistant (Leverhulme scholar) until 1951 and latterly as an external scientific staff member of the MRC. She was appointed as a cytogeneticist and immunologist at the Institute of Cancer Research and the Royal Marsden Hospital in 1960 and promoted to professor of human genetics at the University of London in 1980.

This brief outline of her career does little to explain the esteem in which she was held, nor the affection that she inspired. She was clearly a woman of high intelligence and discriminating judgement. Plunging into the field of genetics shortly after qualifying was a most unusual career move in those days, but she chose to join the MRC Blood Group Research Unit at the Lister Institute during a most exciting phase of their genetic analyses. The experience and skills gained during this period led Lionel Penrose [Munk's Roll, Vol.VI, p.375] to recruit her to the Galton Laboratory, where he had initiated what later became the Human Genome Project - the ordering of human genes on their respective chromosomes.

At the Galton Laboratory, Sylvia began to investigate whether there was evidence of genetic linkage between several well defined inherited diseases and blood group antigens. This required painstaking serological studies on large pedigrees in which there were several family members afflicted with the abnormality. Hers were the first studies successfully to demonstrate such linkage. In 1954 Sylvia discovered linkage between elliptocytosis and Rhesus system genes and shortly afterwards she and James Renwick [q.v.] reported on the genetic linkage between the ABO blood group genes and the nail-patella syndrome.

Following these ground-breaking discoveries Sylvia’s genetic interests grew steadily broader. As well as studying genetic linkages of red cell antigens, she investigated the Gm polymorphisms of gamma globulins. In the early 1960s, after moving to the Institute of Cancer Research, Sylvia started a cytogenetics laboratory to serve the Royal Marsden Hospital. In addition, she was quick to become fascinated by the human leucocyte antigen or the HLA system, the most highly polymorphic series of closely linked genes at that time, and set up a group dedicated to its study.

Sylvia Lawler attended the 2nd International Histocompatibility Workshop in Leiden in 1965 as an observer, but first began to participate actively in the HLA Workshops at Torino in 1967. Unlike the early investigators of the red cell antigens, those involved in the analysis of the HLA system collaborated from an early stage, running a series of workshops in which the reactivity patterns of HLA antisera were confirmed by all the participants. Following each workshop a WHO recognized nomenclature committee studied the data and assigned designations to each specificity. In this way an ordered terminology was developed over the years for the polymorphisms of the HLA complex and the potential problems of competing terminologies were successfully avoided. Sylvia, although not a formal member of the nomenclature committee, with her experience of the arguments over the Rhesus system terminology, undoubtedly used her influence to encourage the development of this collaborative approach.

I think it is fair to say that her own laboratory’s contributions to the study of the HLA system were useful and sound, without being outstanding. This was partly because the clinical commitment of her group was to support the bone marrow transplantation team of the Royal Marsden Hospital branch in Sutton, and her investigations into the possibility that certain HLA polymorphisms might be significantly associated with leukaemias did not result in any new observation of fundamental importance.

Sylvia was also deeply interested in cellular genetic changes occurring during the progression of haematological malignancies and of trophoblast tumours, becoming an acknowledged expert in these fields.

To her staff Sylvia was a mother figure, always concerned about their careers and personal lives. They responded to her with loyalty and affection, giving visitors to the laboratory a strong sense of a happy and productive working environment.

J Richard Batchelor

[Brit.med.J., 1996,312, 906; The Times, 26 Jan 1996]

(Volume X, page 292)

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