Lives of the fellows

Harry Blight May

b.11 November 1908 d.21 June 1992
BA Cantab(1930) MA MB BChir(1934) MRCP(1937) MD(1945) FRCP(1954) FRCPath(1963)

Harry May came from a farming family. He was born in Plymouth and educated at Devonport Grammar School. He was awarded a scholarship to St John’s College, Cambridge, where initially he studied natural sciences and achieved first class honours, winning the Wright’s prize. He later turned to medicine, undertaking his clinicals at The London Hospital medical college. After graduation he held junior posts as house physician, emergency officer and pathology assistant at The London and his first aim was to become a physician. Anxious to stay at The London, he decided to take up pathology instead, believing there would be more openings in that field. He became a lecturer in bacteriology at the University of Manchester and held a research post at Harvard, USA, in 1936. From 1939-45 he served in the EMS. He was appointed director of the clinical laboratories at The London in 1946 and remained director until his retirement in 1974. The laboratories, which had been started by Sir Philip Panton, provided all services to the hospital except for histopathology. In May 1949 he was appointed consultant clinical pathologist to the Royal Navy.

May published a paper on the action of sulphonamides in experimental anthrax in 1939, a paper on tests for sensitivity of organisms to bacteriostatics in 1945, and another on para-amino benzoic acid in leukaemia in 1948. He also helped to produce the first satisfactory cotton blanket in 1946. While accepting the appointment of a third consultant, he successfully resisted any attempt to develop separate departments. On his retirement, the University Grants Committee provided additional laboratory space, academic units were established in haematology, clinical chemistry, virology and immunology, and the existing academic unit of bacteriology - of which Sir Samuel Bedson [Munk's Roll, Vol.VI, p.35] had previously been head - took over the microbiology services.

In 1953 Harry May was appointed dean of The London Hospital medical college for a period of five years, to be extended only in exceptional circumstances. Four years later he and the sub-dean found themselves pawns in a town-and-gown struggle, the ‘town’ party rightly assuming that the sub-dean wished to see an increase in academic clinical staff. The advisory appointment committee recommended the appointment of the sub-dean who, in 1953, had been requested to remain in post for that purpose. The academic board voted equally for and against the recommendation, leading the governors to decide that the circumstances were exceptional. Harry was reappointed and served as dean for another 10 years.

Writing his own obituary in the BMJ Harry stated: ‘ ... it was as an administrator, I think, that I was at my best.’ He served on most of the many committees on which the governance of the University of London depended at that time. Of this period, 1960-64, as dean of the faculty of medicine, he wrote: ‘ ... it was a particularly difficult time, as until 1960 the faculty had been managed by the part-time consultants to the teaching hospitals. This was clearly unsatisfactory, and I tried to move the influence in the faculty to the professionals.’ He had earlier described his time as the dean of The London as: ‘ ... a steady evolution towards self-government from the Hospital although this was by no means obvious at the time.’

He wrote: ‘I regarded selecting students and senior college and hospital staff as my most important task ... I often took candidates for senior posts to dinner at the Athenaeum to try to find out if they had real potential.’ He had firm views on the selection of students. He believed in medical schools remaining small and disapproved of women taking up medicine. The national survey of medical students in 1966 showed The London’s entry to be the youngest in the country, with the smallest percentage - 7% -of women. It included a higher percentage of students from social class three than other schools in London and, as others increased their numbers and The London’s entry from Oxford and Cambridge declined, it became one of the smallest schools.

The UGC’s decision to expand dental education, however, resulted in doubling the number of dental students and the building of a new dental institute. Harry May appointed a team of dental teachers which was to prove eminently successful in teaching, patient care and research.

Harry was an amiable man, unhurried, tolerant of new ideas but with an in-built resistance to anything but slow change in the status quo. He lectured on clinical pathology but preferred to meet students at informal coffee mornings, which he held regularly in the dean’s office. He had few interests but he was a contented man, happier perhaps as a dean than as a pathologist. He married Dorothy née Quartermaine in 1949, who had been a sister at The London. There were no children of the marriage. After her death, he married Joan.

Sir John Ellis

[Lond.Hosp. Gaz,Nov 1968,71(5),14-15]

(Volume IX, page 356)

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