Lives of the fellows

Edward (Sir) Mellanby

b.8 April 1884 d.30 January 1955
KCB(1937) GBE(1948) BA Cantab(1905) MA MB Cantab(1910) MD Cantab(1915) Hon DSc Sheff(1933) Hon LLD St And(1938) Hon LLD Birm(1938) Hon LLD Durh(1938) Hon DSc Oxon(1939) Hon LLD Glasg(1946) FRS(1925) *FRCP(1928) Hon FRCSE(1946)

Edward Mellanby was born in West Hartlepool where his father, John Mellanby, was the manager of the shipyard of the Furness-Withy Company. He was the youngest of a family of six children of whom three sons occupied important academic chairs, the eldest in civil and mechanical engineering at Glasgow, the second in physiology at St. Thomas’s Hospital and later at Oxford, and Edward himself in physiology in London and later in pharmacology at Sheffield. Edward’s father was a Yorkshireman and his mother, Mary Lawson, was born in Edinburgh.

After early schooling in West Hartlepool Edward went to Barnard Castle School in 1898 with the aid of a bursary, and there it seems he had an excellent record and a good early training in science. At that time he was a good athlete and captain of both cricket and football, but he soon gave up taking an active part in athletic activities when he came to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, in 1902, with an open exhibition in natural science and a leaving exhibition from his school.

At Emmanuel he came under the influence of Gowland Hopkins and this early association evidently had a lasting effect on Mellanby’s research interests. He was in the first class in both parts of the natural sciences tripos, taking the second part in physiology. In 1906-07 he worked with a research studentship with Hopkins and published his first substantial paper on creatin and creatinin in 1908 (J. Physiol. (Lond.), 1907-8, 36, 447-87), but in 1907 he left Cambridge for London to complete his medical course at St. Thomas’s Hospital.

In 1911, the year after his qualifications in medicine, he published a paper on cyclical vomiting (Lancet, 1911, 2, 8-12). Mellanby now became a demonstrator in physiology at St. Thomas’s and later a Beit memorial fellow. In 1913 he became professor of physiology of the University of London in the King’s College for Women (later Queen Elizabeth’s), and a year later he married May Tweedy, whom he had met at Cambridge and who was now pursuing physiological researches at Bedford College, London.

Thus began a research partnership which was to last for the rest of his life. In 1914 the newly appointed Medical Research Committee (later Medical Research Council) decided, on the suggestion of Hopkins, to promote research into the metabolic defect in rickets, and Mellanby was invited to undertake this. This was the first great chance for him to show his drive, enthusiasm and ability as a research worker.

The histological and biochemical investigations were largely carried out in London, but the Field Laboratories, where dietary trials in dogs took place, were in Cambridge. As is now well-known, these researches led to a clear demonstration that the lack-of-food factor was involved in the causation of rickets. The factor was at first thought to be the fat-soluble vitamin A, though later vitamin D was separated by others and the antirachitic effect of ultra-violet rays was discovered.

Mellanby’s careful studies on the effect of diet in the causation of rickets in dogs led to the rational treatment of rickets in human infants, with the almost complete elimination of the disease from this country in a few years. The researches were also the starting-point of a lot of work done by others, including May Mellanby’s studies on the effect of nutrition on dentition and caries.

In 1920 Mellanby was invited to occupy the chair of pharmacology in Sheffield. This chair had really been created as a chair in experimental medicine, and Mellanby was given laboratories at the University, beds for clinical work at the Royal Infirmary, and a field laboratory where he could continue his researches on dogs. The idea of appointing a research worker and physiologist to a chair with clinical responsibility was a new one and was largely due to the advanced thinking of Dr A. E. Barnes and of J. B. Leathes, then professor of physiology.

These three men gave the Medical School in Sheffield an outlook far in advance of most medical schools in the country in the early twenties. Along with collaborators Mellanby published papers on the absorption of alcohol, on the effect of iodine on the thyroid gland and in hyperthyroidism, and on the action of cereals in antagonising the effect of vitamin D in rickets. Now that vitamin A and D had been separated, he further studied the effects of a pure deficiency of vitamin A.

The Medical Research Council had undergone a remarkable development during the secretaryship of Sir Walter Fletcher; he died in 1933, and Mellanby was appointed in his place. There were some who doubted whether he had the organising ability for an administrative post of this great importance, and others who thought that it was a pity for such a brilliant research worker to take a post of this kind at all, but there is no doubt that Mellanby was a conspicuous success as secretary of the Medical Research Council, which post he occupied for sixteen years.

Neither did he give up his research work, for he insisted on having some facilities for this, and by working in the weekends and having a number of collaborators, his researches continued and indeed developed. During this time the discovery was made that the so-called improvement of flour by the agene process was the cause of canine hysteria; and later, and with Honor Fell, Mellanby worked on the effect of growth factors on embryonic organs in artificial culture, and a number of important papers emerged. He was still working on related questions, after his retirement from the Medical Research Council, up to the very day of his sudden death in January 1955.

The removal of the National Institute for Medical Research to its new building at Mill Hill took place during Mellanby’s secretaryship of the Medical Research Council, but his success in that office is not to be judged in terms of the provision of facilities for research workers. It was due to his personality, his drive, his forthrightness in statement, and to the fact that, in the selection of research workers for the M.R.C, to support, he looked for the vision, initiative, originality and pertinacity which he had himself in such full measure.

Mellanby was not always easy to get on with and could be blunt to the point of rudeness to persons whether they were important or unimportant. He did not suffer fools gladly; indeed he did not suffer them at all. But in spite of this he was essentially a happy man, both in his work and in his married life; boyish in his appearance and his enthusiasms, he must have been a tremendous help and encouragement to a large succession of his colleagues and co-workers.

He was Croonian lecturer in 1933, Harveian orator in 1938, Moxon medallist in 1936, Bisset Hawkins medallist in 1939 and Baly medallist in 1949.

Edward and May Mellanby had no children, but worked in collaboration or separately during the whole of their married life.

Richard R Trail

* He was elected under the special bye-law which provides for the election to the fellowship of "Persons holding a medical qualification, but not Members of the College, who have distinguished themselves in the practice of medicine, or in the pursuit of Medical or General Science or Literature..."

[Amer. J. clin. Nutr., 1955, 3, 246-7; Biogr.Mem.Roy.Soc., 1955, 1, 193-222 (p), bibl.; Brit.med.J., 1955, 1, 355-8 (p), 421-2; Lancet, 1955, 1, 320-10 (p), 359-60; Nature (Lond.), 1955, 175, 530-32; Trans. Ass. Amer. Phys., 1955, 68, 13-14; Times, 31 Jan. 1955; Lord Hankey. Address at the memorial service, St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church, Westminster. 17 Mar. 1955.]

(Volume V, page 279)

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