Lives of the fellows

Robert Hereward Mole

b.21 January 1914 d.4 March 1992
BM BCh Oxon(1938) MRCP(1941) FRCP(1962) MRCPath(1963) FRCP(1971) Hon FRCR(1987)

When the Medical Research Council was invited to set up a unit to monitor activities on the setting up of the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell in 1947, the director of the unit - JF Loutit (q.v.) - decided that there were seven topics on which he would need experts. As well as giving opinions on the safety of procedures which would take place on the site, which in contrast to the isolation of existing sites in the USA was surrounded by houses for some of the staff, the group leaders would also be expected to conduct experiments on this new branch of science. His choice of pathologist was R H Mole, always known as Robin, who liked the prospect of returning to the Oxford area.

Robin was born in Moukden, Manchuria - now renamed and in China - where his father was a medical missionary and his mother was an intellectual who held the view that research was superior to any other aim in life; clear pointers to his future. Schooling was erratic until he entered Kingswood School, Bath, at the age of 11. He worked his way up, ending with an open scholarship in science to Oriel College, Oxford, in 1932. In his final year at school he captained the 1st XV, but this activity started spinal trouble which dogged him for the rest of his life. After securing his BA at Oxford in 1935, in the honours school of physiology, he managed an extra year in Oxford to gain the Radcliffe prize in pharmacology and an open scholarship to St Mary’s Hospital medical school, London, in 1936. Two years later he qualified in medicine and surgery, and kept himself occupied with locums in general practice and at Lambeth Hospital as well as being house physician to the senior physician at St Mary’s. At Lambeth, this involved the insertion of radium needles into 20 cases of cervical cancer twice a week - which became his introduction to radiation medicine.

On the outbreak of war in 1939, he married Norah Grace née Evers, daughter of a Methodist minister and missionary. They had three children, a daughter and two sons.

In 1940 he returned to Oxford and the Nuffield department of medicine, to hold a variety of posts with an influx of evacuee students from the London hospitals. But the old back injury recurred and caused difficulty in leaning over patients to do standard physical examinations. In spite of this, he obtained his membership of the College but he transferred to the Nuffield department of pathology two years later. This did not solve his physical problem as leaning over a postmortem table was just as painful. A double laminectomy was performed on him in 1942, two adjacent laminae being removed. The first was unnecessary because preoperative anatomical localization of the level of the disc lesion had yet to be refined. On call up to the RAF in 1944 he was ascribed a unique category: ‘... fit to be a pathologist at home or abroad, in peace or in war, but not fit for other duties.’ He was sent to India where he set up pathology services for the 1st RAF General Hospital in Calcutta, later joining the 2nd General Hospital at Karachi where he spent most of his time before demobilization in 1946.

In 1947 he was clinical pathologist at the Liverpool Royal Infirmary and it was during this time that he was recruited for the Medical Research Council’s unit at Harwell, which he joined in 1948. He was pleased to return to Oxford and determined, at a time when personal transport was difficult, to live 15 miles from the unit, first in Iffley and later at Boars Hill, a major consideration being the provision of suitable education for his children. When Loutit retired from the directorship in 1969 to return to laboratory work, as a result of the Paton Committee recommendation that the unit - which he had built up - should be cut by half, Robin took over and faced the daunting task of trying to ensure humanitarian transfers of staff rather than redundancies, as well as continuing his research and other activities.

His experimental programme rose primarily from his interest in the causes of loss of fertility, life shortening and especially leukaemia in its various guises resulting from low dose radiation. Whole body fast neutron irradiation was investigated with the collaboration of two physicist colleagues during the 1950s, in a classic experiment on the top of Britain’s first nuclear reactor GLEEP (graphite low energy experimental pile). He also investigated leukaemia induction in mice with a variety of fractionated doses of 250 kV Xrays administered from radiotherapy style machines within the units. He was able to continue his practical work up to 1985 under an MRC project grant, after reaching the age for compulsory retirement.

Robin’s interest in radiobiology and his great intellectual capacity for expression produced a total of over 200 scientific papers as well as many contributions to official documents. This was reflected in his position as chairman of the MRC’s protection against ionizing radiation committee, 1966-77, and his membership of Committee 1 of the International Commission on Radiological Protection, 1969-81. He was responsible for Part 2 of the task group report of ICRP Publication 14 (1969) where, as chairman, he wrote the entire article on ‘Relative Radiosensitivities of Tissues’ which introduced the concept that there could be dose limits for phenomena with threshold doses and for other phenomena without thresholds; limits set by the latter meant that the former were taken care of. This emphasized that the whole risk could not be dealt with by the concept of critical organs but must take into account the irradiation of all tissues of the body.

With his unique and complex character he enjoyed an intellectual battle; he had a critical mind which enabled him readily to detect any flaws in a scientific argument although he sometimes did not anticipate the reactions of his opponents. He was honoured by many learned societies, both British and foreign, and worked to the very end of his life. He left behind papers in the course of preparation and lectures already planned.

Robin was basically a kind man, having early on shown concern for his patients and later for members of his staff who had suffered through illness or personal adversity. He had a great sense of duty and less than 24 hours before he died he had journeyed to the funeral and cremation of a former member of his staff who had long since retired. If this side of his character was not always evident it was because he often seemed determined not to show emotion. The sorrow of his unexpected death was mitigated only by the knowledge that he could never have resigned.

D W H Barnes

[MRC News, June 1990,55,32]

(Volume IX, page 370)

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