Lives of the fellows

Robert David George Milner

b.20 June 1937 d.22 February 1996
MRCS LRCP(1960) MB BS Lond(1960) MRCP(1964) MD(1968) PhD Cantab(1968) FRCP( 1976) ScD Cantab(1980)

A Yorkshireman to the bone, David Milner emerged from an impoverished childhood to become a distinguished exponent of paediatric medicine. Qualifying from King’s College, London, in 1960, he joined the neonatal sub unit of the Institute of Child Health based at Hammersmith Hospital, after resident appointments in London and Paris. However his relationship with Sir Peter Tizard [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.518] was not easy and his extraordinary ability as a medical scientist was only recognized and fostered when he moved on to Cambridge as Stanley Elmore scholar at Sidney Sussex College under R A McCance [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.327].

After carrying out important studies on the ontogeny of insulin secretion he moved to the West Indies to work on infant nutrition. He was subsequently appointed as senior lecturer in the department of child health at the University of Manchester - one of the very few men to gain consultant status without ever being a senior registrar. In Manchester he displayed a peculiar talent for exploiting what Harvey might have called experiments not of nature but of clinical practice - using therapeutic exchange transfusions as a way of measuring hormonal secretion and responses to over/under loading the circulation depending on whether the procedure began with the addition or subtraction of blood.

Failing (it is said by a whisker) to be appointed as director of the MRC’s Dunn Nutritional Institute in Cambridge he spent a sabbatical year in Berne with Ettore Rossi before succeeding Ronald Illingworth [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.259] as professor of paediatrics in Sheffield. In this post he displayed both his strengths and weaknesses as an administrator, attracting and looking after a talented group of coworkers, while at the same time acting as something of a cuckoo in the nest in relation to the department he had taken over. His work at this time centred on the actions of the growth hormone and its associated growth factors, including insulin.

His hopes of returning to Cambridge disappointed, and finding Sheffield not altogether congenial, he then surprised his friends by deciding to take up a lucrative post in Saudi Arabia where he hoped to transcend the personal and professional financial stringency which had dogged his career. But in Saudi Arabia he found it difficult to pursue clinical research, finding clinical care and teaching taking up all his time and energy.

It was not made easy for him to break back into British academic medicine, but a year as visiting professor at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and his appointment to a named chair at the University of Leuven provided the opportunity that he needed to re-establish himself as an investigator.

At the time of his death he was engaged in exploring the mechanism of the association between low birth weight and the triad of hypertension, insulin resistant diabetes and atherosclerosis in middle age, demonstrated by David Barker. He had also just completed a study, commissioned by the MRC, looking at the circumstances in which extracts of human pituitary growth hormone, used for the treatment of short stature, became contaminated with the agent which caused Creutzfeld Jakob disease.

David Milner had a complex personality and, though almost surly under stress, he was a warm and generous friend with an almost boyish enthusiasm for whatever activity may have engaged his interest. A member of the Athenaeum, he enjoyed good wine and serious conversation. He had a son and daughter by his former wife, Jill.

John Davis

(Volume X, page 341)

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