Lives of the fellows

Arnold Ashley (Sir) Miles

b.20 March 1904 d.11 February 1988
Kt(1966) CBE(1953) MRCS LRCP(1928) MRCP(1929) FRCP(1937) MA MD Cantab(1952) FRCPath(1969) FRS(1961)

From the outset of his career, Ashley Miles’ rapid progression to the summit of medical microbiology was marked by a series of milestones indicative of his outstanding academic abilities. A Yorkshireman, his education began at Bootham School, whence he won an exhibition in natural sciences to King’s College, Cambridge. During his premedical studies there his bent towards microbiology and pathology was reinforced by the influence of E G D Murray and H R Dean [Munk's Roll, Vol.V, p.98]. He qualified in medicine at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, and in the following year achieved the remarkable feat of gaining membership of the College while still a house physician. He once remarked, airily but somewhat disingenuously, that he did so because he must get the right trade union stamp on his bottom before he could talk to the clinicians on equal terms.

In 1929, Miles became a demonstrator at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and it seems clear that the influence of those two great bacteriologists, W W C Topley [Munk's Roll, Vol.IV, p.561] and G S Wilson (q.v.),later Sir Graham, finally decided the course of his life’s work. At the School of Hygiene he undertook his first researches, on the antigens of Brucella, and continued when, in 1931, he returned to Cambridge as university demonstrator in pathology. There followed a readership at Hammersmith postgraduate medical school and then, at the early age of 33, the chair of bacteriology at University College Hospital medical school, London. Soon afterwards, however, the outbreak of war brought many additional responsibilities and provided the first example of Miles’ prodigious capacity for work and of his ability to tackle several jobs at once, not just adequately but supremely well. In addition to his teaching and research, in temporary accommodation in Hertfordshire, he was in charge of the pathological services in a sector of the Emergency Medical Service, acting director of the Graham Medical Research Laboratories in London and, in retrospect most important of all, director of the MRC wound infection unit at Birmingham. There he became concerned with hospital infections of war and industrial wounds by streptococci and staphylococci: his studies on the ways in which they are transmitted resulted in practical and effective recommendations for their control. These researches had a further outcome, less apparent at the time but of great future significance, for they sowed the seed of Miles’ interest in the mechanisms of inflammation that was to dominate his laboratory work for the rest of his life.

The war over, Ashley Miles moved to the National Institute for Medical Research, where he was both deputy director and head of the department of biological standards. Although much of his time was taken up with this rapidly developing field, he continued his studies of infection, in some of which his wife Ellen collaborated. These investigations related both to the toxins of anaerobic pathogens and to the use of experimental skin lesions for studying inflammatory responses, a technique that was to be cleverly exploited in later years.

In 1952 Miles became director of the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine, an independent, privately funded organization that housed a variety of somewhat disparate activities, ranging from esoteric researches in microbiology, biochemistry and biophysics, to the manufacture and sale of vaccines, antisera and blood products. The Lister already enjoyed a high reputation for biomedical research, and the unusual mixture of people and laboratories that Miles inherited seemed perfectly to suit his own talents and personality. Here he was to remain for the next 20 years, and during this period his ability for intensive work at the highest level was again tested to the full. In his own department of experimental pathology he both directed and personally undertook investigations into the early tissue responses to injury, particularly those that increase capillary permeability, and established that the outcome of many bacterial infections is largely determined by the efficacy of the host’s defences during the first few hours after the initial invasion - what he termed ‘the decisive period’. These researches alone would have kept the average research worker fully occupied, but Miles was far from average. His genuine interest in the scientific activities of others took him from time to time into every other department, not so much in a directorial capacity but as a colleague whose clear thinking and quick insight into problems often far removed from his own field earned him the respect of his staff. Inevitably, these qualities made him much in demand on many boards and committees, including those of the World Health Organization, the Medical Research Council, the British Pharmacopoeia Commission, and the Public Health Laboratory Service. Elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1961, he served for five years both as a vice-president and in the demanding position of biological secretary. Despite all these preoccupations, his literary output was, to say the least, impressive. He was a superb writer of clear, concise English that always bore his individual stamp, however impersonal the subject. As well as publishing some 140 papers on his own work, he was a general editor of no fewer than five editions of Topley and Wilson’s Principles of Bacteriology and Immunity, London, E Arnold & Co, from 1929 onwards, and to ensure that his own scientific and literary standards were met he added to his seemingly impossible workload by personally vetting every paper published from the Institute.

Ashley Miles’ contributions to biomedical sciences, both in the United Kingdom and overseas, brought him many distinctions, including the CBE and a knighthood. He was elected to honorary fellowship of many distinguished academic bodies; the one that perhaps gave him most pleasure was that conferred by his former college at Cambridge, King’s.

After his official ‘retirement’ in 1972, he spent the next four years at the bench as a MRC grant-holder at the Clinical Research Centre at Harrow, and then, mirabile dictum, continued to work as deputy director of the department of medical microbiology at the London Hospital medical college where, despite a severely disabling stroke, he carried on with research and teaching until a few months before his death.

The best scientific experiments are often marked by an elegant simplicity, and this was certainly a feature of all Miles’ laboratory work; it was particularly well illustrated by one of his earliest papers, in which he and S S Misra [Munk's Roll, Vol.VI, p.340] described the method of counting viable bacteria that still bears their names. Like many of his generation, he was rather wary of high technology, and indeed once confessed to feeling that he had ‘lost his amateur status’ when obliged to use a radioisotope in an experiment.

Especially in his later years, he was held in some awe by junior staff and his postgraduate students; he was intolerant of stupidity and implacably opposed to anyone who contravened his own standards of personal and scientific integrity. To those unacquainted with him, these characteristics might imply a stern and unbending personality, but nothing could be further from the truth, for underlying them was a deep kindliness that, in fact, left little scope for the ruthless pruning of dead wood that is often necessary in any organization.

His engaging sense of humour and wide knowledge of music, literature, and the countryside, made him a delightful companion and conversationalist. It is sad that his last years were marred by illness, during which however he was greatly supported by the devotion of his wife, who died just a month before him. There were no children of the marriage.

LH Collier

[Lancet, 1988,1,425; The Times, 12 Feb 1988; Independent Feb 1988; MRC News, No.39,June 1988; Bull.Roy.Coll.Pathologists, No.63,June 1988; No 50,April 1985; Audio Tape]

(Volume VIII, page 337)

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