Lives of the fellows

David Lee Mollin

b.21 April 1917 d.12 January 1989
BSc MB BCh Wales(1942) MRCS LRCP(1942) MRCP(1965) FRCPath(1967) FRCP(1973)

David was born, a son of the Church, at Nantymoel and his father, Montagu William Mollin, who influenced him greatly, later became a well known Baptist Minister in Barry. David had his early schooling at Barry Grammar School, belonging to that distinguished generation of Barry boys that included men of the calibre of Gwynfor Evans, the Welsh Nationalist, who was a lifelong friend, and Sir John Habbakuk -whom he no doubt would have regarded as a more Establishment figure. At school he developed his commitment to the cause of Welsh Rugby a subject on which, like so many of his countrymen, he could wax lyrical. As a student, he began his medical career at University College Hospital, London, but graduated at the Welsh National School of Medicine in 1942, the UCH students having been evacuated to Cardiff. He then served in the RAMC in Normandy and India, an experience that stimulated his interest in laboratory medicine.

After demobilization, he tried - at first unsuccessfully - to get a post at Hammersmith, where ultimately Sir John McMichael (q.v.), a Fellow of the College and of the Royal Society, took him on. He then came to the attention of Sir John Dacie, also a Fellow of both the College and the Royal Society, who in those postwar years was setting up the new department of haematology at Hammersmith that later achieved so much distinction. Mollin became a lecturer and began work on the particular types of anaemia, known as megaloblastic anaemias, to which he was to devote his professional life. David had already made a very much more important decision; he had married Constance Bembridge. Not always the easiest of men to live with, it was to Connie’s love and devotion that he came to owe so much - not only for the order that she managed to create out of his natural instinct for domestic confusion, but also in the support she gave to him in all that he did.

David’s nonconformity and the originality of his ideas could have found no better environment than the Hammersmith of that golden era. He was deeply influenced, as were so many others, by Sir John Dacie and it was he who first stimulated David’s interest in the investigation of the megaloblastic anaemias. Mollin’s earliest major contribution to research was the discovery, with Innes Ross, of a method of assaying the anti-anaemic principle, vitamin in blood, using the green alga Euglena Gracilis. This development made it possible to differentiate for the first time the anaemias due to deficiency of vitamin from those due to lack of other anti-anaemic vitamins like folic acid.Mollin was not the first to use radioactive to measure absorption but with Bradley and Lester Smith he obtained the most highly radioactive material available in the mid-1950s, making it possible for the first time to measure absorption into the blood. It was this that led to the discovery - to which Barbara Anderson, Chanarin and I contributed - that vitamin B12 is absorbed in the nether regions of the alimentary tract; the first time that absorption of a dietary substance had been shown to occur in a specific region of the intestine.

David Mollin had the capacity of gathering around him a remarkable group of talented individuals. He was great fun to work with; a stimulating if sometimes infuriating taskmaster but all, from the most junior technician to learned professional colleagues, came to respect and love him. I recall that I first met him, like others among his friends, through an altercation. As a haematologist in Sir John Dacie’s department, in late 1952, he made it blisteringly clear to me -then a young house physician - that I had no business sending my own amateur blood films to the laboratory, still less offering a diagnosis -particularly when I got it wrong. Two years later, however, he took me on as a research fellow and it was with him that I took my first faltering footsteps in clinical investigation. It was the beginning of a close and affectionate relationship; its importance to us neither of us would have openly admitted, except perhaps in the self-mocking way he liked to affect. He was the staunchest of friends and helped to preserve my sanity and that of others in times of trial and trouble. He was also a stern but excellent critic; when he read the first draft of my MD thesis he simply wrote in the margin ‘Oh God, Oh Montreal!’ -and I began again.

Mollin’s laboratory soon achieved a well deserved international reputation and attracted young research workers from far and wide. It perhaps came of age in 1960 when Her Majesty the Queen visited the Postgraduate Medical School on its 25th anniversary. To celebrate the occasion, Barbara Anderson - the undisputed High Mistress of the assay - had plugged the green-growing test tubes with purple cotton wool in honour of her Monarch’s interested inspection.

David’s remarkable capacity to bring research workers together is perhaps best illustrated by his work with Peter Williams and the Wellcome Trust, which coordinated the activities of Foy and Kondi in Nairobi, O’Brien and England in Singapore, Baker and Mathan in Vellore, Klipstein in the United States and Haiti - as well as ourselves in London. It was this programme which enabled David to indulge his passion for shopping on an international scale; I still recall the problems created for distraught airline officials by the extent of his purchases on a trip from Singapore to Puerto Rico. It was also a problem for his fellow travellers’ pockets since he never allowed financial considerations to conflict with his acquisitive instincts. However, the work was carried to completion and the results of this important collaboration were published as a Wellcome monograph in 1970.

In 1966 he was appointed the first professor of haematology at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, and there he continued his work as well as building up a new and outstanding department which effectively coordinated the activities of clinicians, pathologists and laboratory scientists. He also recruited his old chief, John Dacie, after Dacie’s retirement in 1977.

Peter Neumark of Nature worked for a while in the department, and it was here that Amiss and his colleagues made the important observation that the anaesthetic nitrous oxide - so commonly used by dentists and in intensive care units - might interfere with the metabolism of vitamin B12 It was at the Clinical Research Centre at Northwick Park, then directed by his ex-pupil, myself, that David’s other ex-pupil, I Chanarin, clarified the biochemistry of this reaction with his anaesthetist colleagues.

David Mollin developed an intense affection for Bart’s. He delighted in its ancient traditions and enjoyed showing distinguished foreign visitors the Hogarth paintings. He was also deeply impressed by the high technical standards of his adopted hospital, and by the integrity of the staff. He loved the City and for a while lived in a flat in Charterhouse Square, a period of his life for which he was indebted to Bart’s and which he greatly appreciated. But his love for Wales was greater. It was hiraeth, that uniquely Welsh feeling of longing experienced by all London-based Welshmen, that took him home to Wales when he retired in 1982; it was to that lovely house in Romilly Park in his childhood home in Barry, with its entrancing views across the sea.

In his early years, David Mollin was modestly diffident - even to the extent of finding it difficult to address an audience. With the support of his wife and with increasing experience over the years he overcame this, becoming an accomplished and stimulating lecturer. With his staff, he was a stickler for good presentation, insisting on repeated rehearsal.

David had to endure a lifelong battle with migraine, which mercifully seemed to trouble him less in later life. As the years went by he became a legendary figure, being remembered by the younger colleagues of his mature years as projecting a ‘tremendous presence’ and providing ‘a rich source of memorable quotations’. Left-wing in politics, he belonged to that romantic era of socialism identified with Esmond Romilly and the Spanish Civil War. He was utterly impervious to any sense of social class. Sensitive and emotional, he was a man of the highest integrity, who derived from his upbringing a deep understanding of the nature of sin. Guilt, however, was not something that he felt. He abhored cant, pomp or hypocrisy, and was scathing with anything that he identified as phoney. He loved conversation and many will remember evenings of talk and conviviality deep into the night. He also loved jazz, always preferring his own choice in music and possessed of an enviable collection of recordings. His rooms were always awash with books. Like Dr Johnson, he cultivated his friendships, enjoying an almost conspiratorial delight in relationships he created with close friends, such as Ruth and Denny Mitchison, who shared his own views and ideals. Throughout his life he remained devoted to Connie, who provided for him the inestimable joy of a still, sure centre which he neither betrayed nor forsook He loved his family, taking the greatest pride in the achievements of his children and grandchildren alike. They could always be found around him in the years of retirement at his Barry home.

David was a profoundly moral person, always true to his Welsh roots. He achieved in his life the two things for which all men surely strive - the opportunity of leaving the world a better place than when he entered it, and having earned the love and affection of his friends and family. In the words that he so loved to hear Richard Burton recite: ‘Death shall have no dominion*.

Sir Christopher Booth

[Brit.med.J., 1989,298,248; Times, 19 Jan 1989; St Bart's Hosp.J., Oct 1967,71,375]

(Volume IX, page 372)

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