Lives of the fellows

Robert (Sir) McCarrison

b.15 March 1878 d.18 May 1960
CIE(1923) Kt(1933) MB BCh BAO NUI(1900) MD Belf(1909) DSc Belf(1915) MA Oxon(1941) Hon LLD Belf(1918) MRCP(1909) FRCP(1914) Hon FCP Philad(1922)

Robert McCarrison, second son of Robert and Agnes (McCullough) McCarrison, was born at Portadown, co. Armagh, a stronghold of militant Protestantism, and was brought up in an atmosphere of strict evangelical piety. His father was a flax expert, descended from Scottish settlers who migrated to Ulster in Elizabethan days. Robert remained a regular churchgoer all his life, and in his latter years was churchwarden in the parish church of St. Andrew, Oxford. He was educated in Belfast and began his medical training at Queen’s College, but went to the Richmond Hospital in Dublin for his clinical training, obtaining his degree from the National University with first class honours. He passed into the Indian Medical Service by competition at the first possible opportunity in January 1901.

He retired in 1935 as a (supernumerary) major-general, having received two brevet promotions for distinguished service—to lieutenant-colonel in 1918 and to colonel in 1928—in addition to time-scale advancement.

At the age of twenty-three he was posted to a regiment at the outpost of Chitral in a remote, high valley deep in the Himalayas, and remained in absolute professional isolation for years as R.M.O. in Chitral and later as agency surgeon in Gilgit, an even more remote spot.

Without any scientific training other than that given to a medical undergraduate in the nineteenth century, McCarrison set about making clinical observations from the day of his arrival—at first on typhoid fever in Gurkha soldiers who had hitherto been regarded as immune (Indian med. Gaz., 1903, 38, 98-100). He noted the occurrence of a clearcut three-day fever which he named the three-day fever of Chitral (ibid., 1906, 41, 7-14). His accurate description of that debilitating and temporarily disabling disease in new arrivals in a frontier station is now a classic, and he attributed it, correctly, to the bites of infected sandflies.

The foundations of his future work on goitre and on nutrition were laid almost at once by his observations (1) on the magnificent physique and longevity of the inhabitants of remote Hunza valleys, where the winters are hard and living conditions primitive, but the food consists of a mixture of grains and vegetables with fruits, milk and butter and a little goat meat on feast days only, and (2) on the existence of pockets of goitre, cretinism, deaf mutism and idiocy. With his student’s microscope, an incubator and sterilizer fashioned from kerosene tins, and slides and media imported over the mountains, young McCarrison started to work on goitre. By 1910 his work had aroused enough interest in high places in India to earn him the Kaisar-i-Hind medal (1st class in gold) for public service while still a captain, and he was assigned to ‘special duty’ for the investigation of goitre and cretinism in India.

In 1913 he delivered the Milroy lectures at the College on endemic goitre. He accepted the importance of iodine deficiency in the causation of goitre, but he emphasised the role of goitrogenic agents such as those present in cabbage, and was convinced as a result of experiments at Kasauli that there was a link between the contaminated water supplies and goitre.

During the First World War McCarrison was recalled to military duty and saw service in the Middle East. In 1918 he went to Coonoor in the Blue Mountains (Nilgiris) in South India to convalesce from a war-time illness. He remained there for the rest of his service, working in a wing of the Pasteur Institute of South India, where he established the Nutrition Research Laboratory of the Indian Research Fund Association (later the Indian Council of Medical Research). His first assignment was the Indian beri-beri inquiry which was ‘axed’ on grounds of economy in 1922, but the advent of the Royal Commission on Agriculture in India under the chairmanship of Lord Linlithgow (afterwards Viceroy) saved him for research.

He undertook the enormous task of studying the histology of every organ in the body of animals (usually white rats) fed on a variety of faulty diets, and was among the first to draw attention to the effect of infection and parasitism in precipitating food deficiency states. His principal publications include The Thyroid gland in health and disease (1917), Studies in deficiency disease (1921), The Simple goitres (1928) and Food (1928).

His prizes and lectureships are witness to the honour in which he was held in England, in America and on the Continent. He gained the Prix Amussat of the Paris Academy of Medicine in 1914, the Stewart prize of the B.M.A, in 1918, the Arnott memorial gold medal of the Irish Medical Schools in 1922, the R.S.A. silver medal in 1925 and the Julius Wagner-Jauregg Foundation prize of Vienna in 1934. He was Cantor lecturer in 1925 and the Lloyd Roberts lecturer of the Medical Society of London in 1937. In America he gave the Mellon lecture at Pittsburgh, the Mary Scott Newbold lecture at Philadelphia, the Mayo Foundation lecture, and the De Lamar lecture at Baltimore in 1921.

He was an individualist who throughout his career followed his own bent, remote and rather aloof from both I.M.S, colleagues (especially in the research department) and scientific contemporaries. He was a preacher with a sense of mission, aware of the social implications of his work and eager to convert others. His ‘panache’ and his handsome and dignified appearance reinforced his powers of persuasion and real oratorical gifts. His manner towards subordinates was kind and courteous.

In the Second World War he was a deputy regional adviser in the Emergency Medical Service, and in his seventies he became chairman and director of post-graduate medical education at Oxford.

In 1906 he married Helen Stella Johnson, daughter of J. L. Johnson of the Indian Civil Service. His happy marriage, a true partnership, was of great importance in his life, and his wife, who survived him, gave him great assistance in translating journals in European languages. They had no children.

Richard R Trail

[Brit.med.J., 1960, 1, 1663-4 (p), 1743-4, 1818-19; Calcutta Statesman, 21 May 1960; Lancet, 1960, 1, 1198-9 (p); Nature (Lond.), 1960, 187, 195-6; Org. Gdng. Farming, 1960, 8, 48-52 (p); Oxf. med. Sch. Gaz., 1960, 12, 115-16; Times, 19 June 1960; H. M. Sinclair. The Work of Sir Robert McCarrison. London, 1953 (p).]

(Volume V, page 250)

<< Back to List