Lives of the fellows

John Freeman Loutit

b.19 February 1910 d.11 June 1992
CBE(1957) FRS(1963) MRCS(1935) MA MBBCh(1936) MRCP(1937) DM(1946) FRCP(1955)

John Loutit was born in Australia and educated at the University at Melbourne. In 1930 he was awarded a Rhodes scholarship to St John’s College, Oxford, where he started his medical career before going on to the London Hospital for his clinical studies. After qualifying in 1935 he held a number of appointments in pathology, medicine and surgery but later specialized in haematology.

In 1939, four centres in London for the storage of blood were set up in anticipation of an immediate ‘blitz’. In 1940, Loutit was appointed as director of the South West London Blood Supply Depot at Sutton, Surrey. At first it was believed that blood could only be kept for a few days but Loutit and his team developed an acid citrate/glucose solution winch enabled whole blood to be stored at refrigeration temperature for up to four weeks. At the end of the war in Europe, he was temporarily an adviser to SHAEP on the starving people of the Netherlands which received recognition when he was appointed an Officer of the Order of Orange Nassau in 1951.

With the end of the war, Loutit became involved in radiobiology. The British members of the Manhattan project returned to this country to continue research in nuclear energy. Under the direction of John Cockcroft, the Atomic Energy Research Establishment was set up in 1947 under the Ministry of Supply, on the ex-RAF airfield at Harwell - at that time in Berkshire. Apart from the very brief feasibility study of the first pile under the stand of the Chicago stadium, this was to be the first time that nuclear reactors would be operated in a populated area with residential accommodation actually added to the original housing surrounding the site. For this reason, Cockcroft invited Sir Edward Mellanby, secretary of the Medical Research Council [Munk's Roll, Vol.V, p.279], to set up a unit which would be available on the spot to give independent advice on the safety of the proposals.

John Loutit was appointed director and decided on the seven biological topics that would be appropriate for this new branch of science, which he named radiobiology. He recruited a skilled team in biochemistry, chemistry, cytogenetics, pathology, physics and tissue culture, covering haematology himself. He also took a major interest in radiochemistry and he, or volunteer colleagues, ingested or were injected intravenously with isotopes of biological significance which were found in fallout of nuclear weapons in the first few weeks after detonation, as well as waste from nuclear reactors. Retention was determined by analysis of excreta but also by whole body counting and, in his own case, by a bone biopsy taken from his tibia. He attended the second weapon trial at Emu in Australia and arranged for samples to be sent back to the laboratory as early as possible. He was also instrumental in the setting up of a laboratory at Maralinga in 1956 to investigate in animals the metabolism of fallout immediately after detonation.

At first the radiobiology unit counted as a division of Harwell within the security fence but, with its expansion, specially designed buildings were located outside in 1953 to which the mammalian genetics section was added from Waddington’s department in Edinburgh.

Reports from Chicago, that the LD50 of mice could be doubled by the implantation of pieces of spleen from newborn mice after the radiation, led to experiments in the unit. These showed that the mice which had been given a whole body lethal dose of radiation could be kept alive by an intravenous injection of haemopoietic tissue within the first few days. The length of survival was inversely proportional to the genetic similarity of the donor and irradiated recipient. At the same time, the cytogeneticist Charles Ford and his group demonstrated the number and morphology of human, mouse and rat chromosomes in mitotic cells. A lethally irradiated mouse, which had been injected with rat bone marrow three weeks before, showed that transplantation had occurred with the formation of a chimaera.

This discovery was recognized in 1956 by the award of the Leukemia Society of the USA prize to the team. It led to the treatment of leukaemia and other malignancies in man by irradiation and bone marrow transplantation. Ford also discovered a distinctive chromosome in the cells of a line of mice produced by the genetics section, developed from a minimally irradiated male. This marker was bred into a strain of mice used by Loutit’s team and enabled three lines of cells to be followed in a single irradiated mouse, eg. the recipient cells and donated bone marrow, and lymphocytic or thymic cells.

Following the report of a committee sent to review the unit, which recommended that the staff numbers be cut to a half, John Loutit decided that since he had built up the unit he could not participate in such a reduction and he resigned from the directorship in 1969. Instead, he returned to the bench with a small group and followed his particular interest in the radiation induction of leukaemia, and of osteosarcoma by bone seeking isotopes. Later, employed under a variety of arrangements, he returned to an earlier interest in the use of mouse mutants and chromosome anomalies in research until his final retirement in 1988.

Throughout his time at Harwell he showed a continuing interest in radiation protection and he chaired, or served, on a number of committees which assessed radiation hazards and determined limits for human exposure. He was awarded the CBE in 1957 and elected to the fellowship of the Royal Society in 1963. He was also given honorary degrees at Stockholm and St Andrews.

Though born in Australia, he was very proud of his family origins in the Orkneys and he named his last house ‘Lyking’. His first house in Steventon, Berkshire, had a large garden in which he took great interest, installing a tennis court and a swimming pool. He also enjoyed cricket. He not only played locally for the village but also beguiled his staff into producing a team to play against the Harwell divisions and Guy’s Hospital and the NIMR, Mill Hill. He was widely known for his warm entertaining and he laid on sumptuous meals with well chosen wines. In the 1960s, with a colleague, he attended a cordon bleu cookery course.

His devoted wife Thelma supported him in his long terminal illness but outlived him by only a couple of months. They leave a son and two daughters.

DWH Barnes

[Brit.med.J., 1992,305,219-20,958; The Independent, 17 June 1992; The Daily Telegraph, 20 June 1992; Times, 19 June, 2 July 1992;MRC News, Sept 1992,56,35;Dec 1968,41,35]

(Volume IX, page 319)

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