Lives of the fellows

Robert Thomson Leiper

b.17 April 1881 d.21 May 1969
CMG(1941) Order of Ismail Egypt(1946) MB ChB Glas(1904) DSc(1911) MD(1917) FRS(1923) FRCP(1936) Hon LLD Glas(1955) JP(1942-1968)

Robert Leiper was born in Kilmarnock, Ayrshire, where his family had been settled for three generations; earlier his ancestors had been farmers in Lanarkshire, and Leiper himself later acquired some of the original land. His father was a tailor and outfitter, who moved south to Warwick soon after the birth of his son in 1881. His mother, Jessie, was the daughter of Charles Aird, a restaurant owner in Kilmarnock. A cousin, Professor James Faville Gemmill FRS, was the well-known embryologist who did much to help Leiper in his early scientific career.

Leiper went to Warwick School and Mason College, Birmingham where he matriculated in physics, mathematics, English and Latin. He studied medicine in the University of Glasgow and soon showed evidence of distinction., He obtained the medal in practical physiology and was the John Hunter medallist in advanced experimental physiology; he was awarded the prize for embryology, the senior Arnott prize in physiological physics and the John Reid prize for original research. While an undergraduate he worked at the Millport Station of Marine Biology and discovered a new and interesting parasite of the heart-urchin. He described this work at a meeting of the British Association in 1902 and published it in Nature the same year. During this period, he was appointed honorary librarian at Millport, and it is significant that both these activities (helminthological and bibliographical), begun at the early age of 21, were later to reach fruition in his life work.

Leiper’s qualities were quickly recognised. He was awarded a research studentship in embryology and the Carnegie research scholarship in biology in Glasgow, but he was not left to enjoy what might have been a purely academic career; Sir Patrick Manson FRS was on the outlook for a helminthologist for the newly formed London School of Tropical Medicine, and was fortunate or intuitive enough to select Leiper for the post. He remained here from 1905 until 1946, holding successive appointments as Wandsworth Scholar, William Julian Courtauld Professor of Helminthology in the University of London, and Director of the Department of Medical Zoology. In addition he founded the Institute of Agricultural Parasitology at the Winches Farm Field Station near St. Albans, and was Director until shortly before his death of the Commonwealth Bureau of Helminthology. In the course of this work, he acquired a tremendous international reputation, and students from all over the world flocked to his department; he was acclaimed the father of modem helminthology.

His interests and appointments led him far afield, both geographically and scientifically. He worked in Scotland, the Far East, East and West Africa, Egypt, the Caribbean and South America. Not only did he pursue the parasites of man and domestic animals during his travels, but he directed his attention equally to the parasites of sea urchins and okapis, elephants and hippopotamuses, grouse and potatoes. He became the universal court of reference as his knowledge was encyclopaedic. He was as critical of his own work as of others, and one interesting chapter in his life related to the disproval of the theory that a species of round-worm, Gongolonema neoplasticum causes cancer in man.

Leiper was in China on the outbreak of World War I, but immediately returned to London, where he was appointed a temporary Lt. Col. In the RAMC. He was then sent to Egypt to investigate the transmission and possibilities of prevention of schistosomiasis in the British troops.

Leiper was no stranger to Egypt for he had worked there with Looss in 1906 and 1907, and his earlier work both in Cairo and China enabled him quickly to establish the full life cycle of Schistosoma haematobium and S mansoni and the means for the prevention of these infections in man. In West Africa, Leiper had earlier solved the guineaworm problem, demonstrating the life cycle of this parasite in Cyclops and experimental monkeys. Again on another visit to West Africa, he discovered the mode of transmission of the filarial worm, Loa loa through Chrysops. These were the highlights of his scientific work, but he discovered many new species of helminths, demonstrated their life cycles, and showed how the parasites and hosts fit together into the environment, foreshadowing the theories of Pavlovsky on the nidality of infectious disease.

When Leiper was a student in Glasgow, he had exhibited a flair for medical literature, and he was able to employ this talent in later life by establishing the Journal of Helminthology (1923) and Helminthological Abstracts (1932) both of which are of international renown and usage.

Many honours came to Leiper. He was given the Straits Settlements Gold Medal (1920) and the West London Triennial Gold Medal for his researches in helminthology (1926). In 1919 he was awarded the Mary Kingsley Medal from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine for service to parasitology, and the Bernhardt Nocht Medal for outstanding merit in the field of tropical medicine from the Tropeninstitut of Hamburg.

Leiper belonged to a variety of professional associations, including medical, veterinary, zoological and biological, and remained for many years editor of the helminthological journals which he had founded. He was a corresponding member of the Helminthological Society of Washington, the Société de Pathologie Exotique of Paris and of the Belgian Society of Tropical Medicine. He was elected to the Royal Academy of Medicine in Rome and was made an Honorary Fellow of the National Institutes of Sciences in India and of the American Society of Parasitologists. He was elected an Honorary Fellow of the British Society of Parasitologists soon after its formation, and a year before his death he was made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.

Leiper served on many committees and councils, as examiner for about 20 universities at home and abroad, and as President or Vice-President of various congresses and societies.

Although of slight build, Leiper had a formidable personality. He could never do enough for his own students and staff, and protected them valiantly against the machinations of the administration. It is surprising that he remained on so many committees, considering his contempt for fools and rejection of compromise as a solution for problems. His active research practically ceased before the outbreak of World War II when he directed his activities first to voluntary war work and then, until a few weeks before his death, to the bibliography of his subject. He rarely took time off and his sole "leisure" pursuit was farming - near Wheathampstead from 1934 to 1952, and in Lanarkshire from 1939 to 1951. He felt himself to be a farmer and perhaps gloried more in what he described as an "atavistic" trait, rather than in his celebrated scientific attainments.

While a student in Glasgow he met a Welsh girl, Ceinwen Saron Jones (originally of farming stock from Anglesea), who was studying dentistry in the University. They became engaged, but did not marry until both had qualified in their respective subjects some years later. Mrs. Leiper predeceased him by 3 years. There were 3 children of the marriage - the son, John William Guthrie, a veterinary parasitologist, and two daughters (Mrs. Margaret Gregory and Mrs. Jean Morby).

PCC Garnham

[Brit.med.J., 1969, 2, 579; Lancet, 1969, 1, 1103; Times, 23 May 1969; New Scientist, 1961, 10, 116-117; J. Helminthology (supplement) 1961; Herts. Advertiser, 22 Nov 1974; DNB]

(Volume VI, page 279)

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