Lives of the fellows

William Henry McMenemey

b.16 May 1905 d.24 November 1977
MRCS LRCP(1929) BM BCh Oxon(1930) MA(1930) MRCP(1932) DM(1933) DPM Eng(1935) FRCP(1948) FRCPath(1964) FRCPsych(1971)

William McMenemey, the son of William Henry McMenemey and his wife, Frances Annie Rankin, was educated at Birkenhead School, Merton College, Oxford, and St Bartholomew’s Hospital, where he graduated in 1929. He was house physician to Lord Horder, but already the example of AG Gibson (Munk's Roll IV p.530) had convinced McMenemey that pathology in a clinical atmosphere would be his bent. He held a junior demonstratorship in pathology at St Bartholomew’s, and then for a short while was pathologist at the Napsbury and Shenley Psychiatric Hospital at St Albans; here it was he realized his particular interest was to be in neuropathology, and he maintained that he was the only pathologist with a DPM. Accordingly he held a clinical registrarship in neurology at the Maida Vale Hospital, and then was appointed assistant pathologist to that remarkable character WE Carnegie Dickson (1878 -1954) at the West End Hospital for Nervous Diseases. It was from this hospital, in 1933, that McMenemey published his first paper, significantly on familial presenile dementia, for he was to become a leading authority on cerebral degenerative diseases; it was written jointly with Charles Worster-Drought (1888-1971), with whom he was to enjoy clinical collaboration over many years.

In 1937 McMenemey went to the Radcliffe Infirmary as assistant clinical pathologist to his Oxford teacher, Dr Gibson, and had the good fortune to learn something of Spanish neurohistological techniques, as del Rio Hortega, a refugee from the civil war, was neuropathologist to Sir Hugh Cairns. In 1940 McMenemey became pathologist to the Worcester Royal Infirmary and spent nine happy years transforming rather elementary laboratory facilities into a first-class pathology department, meeting the needs of general practitioners and hospitals, both civil and military; this was largely modelled on the transformation that had taken place in Oxford, where the laboratories of a provincial county hospital became a major university department, with regional integration under the aegis of the Nuffield Provincial Hospitals Trust.

However, in the field of laboratory work, neuropathology was McMenemey’s real love, and in 1949 he was invited to return to Maida Vale Hospital as pathologist. His contributions to the subject were recognized in 1965, with his appointment as professor of pathology at the Institute of Neurology. His particular interest continued to be the pathology of dementia, for which his laboratory became a reference centre for the South of England. It was characteristic of his encouraging enthusiasm that so many of his papers were written jointly, drawing in younger colleagues as well as his clinical associates, but in addition he contributed to Greenfield’s Neuropathology (1959,1963) and the section on ‘Diseases of the Nervous System’ in Wright and Symmers Systemic Pathology (1960).

Though McMenemey’s contributions to neuropathological knowledge were considerable, his greatest achievement was his ability to inspire his young trainees with a delight in the subject, and reveal to neurologists in training the value of an appreciation of the tissue changes in nervous disorders; certainly the weekly seminars he conducted at Maida Vale with his clinical colleagues were one of the most popular postgraduate exercises in the Institute of Neurology.

It was indeed his contributions in collegiation that have left their greatest mark on pathology. He had joined the Association of Clinical Pathologists in 1935, was soon serving on council, and was secretary from 1943 to 1957, a most significant period in the transformation of the Association into the scientific and educational body that it is today. The Association had been founded by Sidney Dyke, an exuberant Canadian in Wolverhampton who was always ready with a biblical quotation to confound his adversaries, yet on occasions his verbosity might engender disquiet, if not distrust; then it was that McMenemey with his gentle charm and wit, which concealed a singleness of purpose, would smooth any ruffled feelings and allow the major issues to be resolved.

It was also Dyke and McMenemey who were the leading spirits in efforts to help refugee pathologists from occupied Europe to find work in our laboratories; these men and women realized that clinical pathology ‘a l’anglais’ was a concept unknown outside the British Isles, but something that could with advantage be fostered elsewhere. Out of a desire to perpetuate this understanding arose the Association of Societies of Pathology, at first called ‘European’, then ‘International’ and now ‘World’. McMenemey worked hard and enthusiastically at the administrative and integrative aspects of this idealistic body, often troubled with national differences as to the meaning of ‘clinical pathology’ and the purpose of their congresses; one of the last tasks on which he was engaged and which he finished just three weeks before his death, was a history of this association.

A less wayward body in whose genesis McMenemey played a large part was the International Society of Neuropathologists, which held its first congress in 1952, evolving from the neuropathology clubs established by Armando Ferraro in the USA in 1925 and JG Greenfield in this country in 1950.

It was natural that McMenemey’s contributions in these fields were recognized by his election to the presidency and fellowship of numerous professional bodies at home and abroad, which he repaid by delivering masterly and thought provoking addresses, for his fondness for foreign travel, combined with his unassuming bonhomie and wit, rendered him an ever welcome delegate to pathological meetings.

When McMenemey left Oxford for Worcester in 1940, Gibson suggested that he should look into the life of John Wall (1708 -1776), one time fellow of his own college of Merton and founder of the Worcester Porcelain Factory; from this arose McMenemey’s considerable contributions to medical history, which latterly became his main interest.

In 1947 his authoritative History of the Worcester Royal Infirmary appeared, and consequent upon this were studies on Charles Hastings, Alexander Philip and the hospital movement of the 18th century. In his last years he was compiling a study of Worcestershire doctors and had completed a detailed account of Sir Charles Throckmorton, MD. However, McMenemey’s historical interests were not restricted to the West Midlands; there was a volume commemorating the bicentenary of James Parkinson (1955), various studies of medicine in the 19th century, while his last published paper considered life and death in Shakespeare’s London.

McMenemey was always immaculately dressed, favouring a bowtie,and his unassuming manner concealed a determination which could be quite immovable, for his standards were high, but it was his consideration for his junior colleagues and anyone in need of assistance and encouragement that was his outstanding characteristic.

Apart from literary and historic pursuits, he enjoyed gardening and music, being a pianist of some competence. Ill health caused his early retirement at the end of 1969 and his activities were restricted for the last seven years of his life, but he received wonderful support from his wife, Robina Inkster, also a physician, whose loyal affection and loving care continued to sustain him as they had done throughout his career. They had a son and a daughter.

AHT Robb-Smith

[Brit.med.J., 1977, 2, 1551; Lancet, 1977, 2, 1239]

(Volume VII, page 368)

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