Lives of the fellows

Colin Bonnet McKerrow

b.5 February 1919 d.14 July 1972
BA Cantab(1941) MRCS LRCP(1945) MB BChir Cantab(1949) MD(1955) MRCP(1949) FRCP(1969)

Colin McKerrow was one of identical twin sons of Ronald Brunless McKerrow (Litt D, FBA), publisher, and Amy Bonnet. He was educated at Oundle; Trinity College, Cambridge; and St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, London, where he was house physician in 1945. After being RMO at St Andrew’s Hospital, Dollis Hill, he spent two years at the RAF Institute of Aviation Medicine and then returned to Barts as Research Assistant to Professor R.V. Christie, FRCP. Colin was one of Christie’s ‘young men’ on the Medical Unit in the immediate post-war years, many of whom had distinguished careers in respiratory physiology. At Barts, Colin continued the research which he had started in the RAF, on methods of measuring ventilatory capacity. In 1950 he joined the staff of the Medical Research Council’s Pneumoconiosis Unit at Llandough Hospital, Penarth (Director, C.M. Fletcher, FRCP). He was able to apply at once his research to studies of coal miners and to samples of the general population. This was the start of the resurgence of interest in the use of tests of lung function to investigate respiratory disability and chronic bronchitis in those exposed to dusts in industry and among the general public. It was an approach which extended world wide over the following twenty years. Colin made an important contribution by establishing the controllable factors affecting the reproducibility of tests.

In 1958 he spent a year with Dr Arthur Otis in Baltimore. Their research showed how variations in the time constants of airflow in different parts of the lung can affect the uniformity of alveolar ventilation. This was a new concept. On returning to the Unit, a long and fruitful period of collaboration with R.S.F. Schilling, FRCP, started. Their research into Byssinosis started in the cotton mills of Lancashire but later extended to other types of vegetable dusts, and to other countries. The important finding in 1957 was that cotton dust caused a reversible fall of ventilatory capacity during a single shift. This opened up many opportunities both for defining acceptable levels of dustiness, and more generally in the elucidation of occupational asthmas.

Colin continued his interests in simple and more sophisticated tests of lung mechanics, for example in helping in the development of the Wright Peak Flow meters. In 1963 he made the first survey of lung compliance in a factory population exposed to beryllium.

Colin was a man of great charm. His lectures were a model of clarity and simplicity of presentation, frequently punctuated by an unexpected flash of humour. His scientific ability and good judgement on the application of respiratory physiology in an epidemiological setting was much appreciated in the USA, where he had many friends.

For a number of years he was in clinical charge of the Unit’s beds and out-patient clinic. He was a member of the Association of Physicians of Great Britain and Ireland, of the Thoracic Society, and on the Council of the Section of Occupational Medicine of the Royal Society of Medicine. He was a member of the Permanent Commission and International Association of Occupational Health, and of the National Coal Board’s Advisory Panel on Industrial Medicine. For six years he was a most meticulous, but constructive assistant Editor of the British Journal of Industrial Medicine. He was honorary consultant on medicine to the United Cardiff Hospitals.

He married in 1964 Antonia Mary, daughter of James William Simmons (Malayan Civil Servant). He had a son and daughter. His twin brother, Malcolm, also became a doctor.

JC Gilson

[, 1972, 3, 421 & 535; Lancet, 1972, 2, 236]

(Volume VI, page 316)

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