Lives of the fellows

Arthur Ernest Mourant

b.11 April 1904 d.29 August 1994
BA Oxon(1925) DPhil(1931) BM BCh(1943) DM(1948) MRCP(1955) FRCP(1960) FRCPath(1963) FRS(1966)

Arthur Mourant pursued a most unusual career, in which medicine played a lesser part than anthropology and geology. He was devoted to his native isle, Jersey, which counted him as one of her most distinguished sons. Through his father, a Jersey farmer, Mourant traced his descent from a Danish Viking named Morant and from him to ancestors who had settled in Jersey in the 14th century. Arthur’s parents were very strict Methodists and he grew up in fear of hell-fire, recounting amazingly that when as a child he heard the distant trumpets of the local OTC, he feared that the end of the world had come.

At school it was soon appreciated that he had an aptitude for mathematics, physics and chemistry and he won gold prizes for these subjects and for languages. At the age of eighteen he won a scholarship to Oxford and left Jersey for the first time. He achieved first class honours in chemistry in 1925 and went on to do research in geology and a PhD on the geology of the Channel Islands. He then made the rather serious mistake of accepting a post with the geological survey, a post so little suited to him that he was asked to resign from it in 1931. He was out of work for a couple of years and then became tutor to an American boy, with whom he travelled to Florence.

In 1935 some physicians in Jersey invited him to set up a chemical laboratory and this led to him becoming a medical student at Bart’s in 1939. Soon after qualifying he was sent to the North London blood supply depot and came to the notice of the blood transfusion world by discovering the first example of anti-e, of the Rh system. After working with R R Race [Munk's Roll, Vol.VIII, p.403] for a year he was appointed director of the newly established Blood Group Reference Laboratory at the Lister Institute. A part of his work was the grouping of panels of red cells from countries from all over the world and this led to the work for which he ultimately became world famous. He was one of the first to realize the enormous potential of blood groups in tracing the origins and interrelationships of human populations, since characteristics based on single genes could be used as markers. The first edition of The distribution of the human blood groups was published in 1954 (Oxford, Blackwell Scientific Publications), and the second in 1976. Mourant's interest in blood groups began to rest more and more on their anthropological aspects. In 1965 he handed over the Blood Group Reference Unit and moved to the Serological Population Genetics Unit which the MRC had created for him.

An important activity at the Blood Group Reference Laboratory was the setting up of an international blood donor panel, making it possible to find donors for patients needing rare types of blood. In this he was greatly helped by his secretary, Jean Shimell, whom he married in 1978.

Throughout his life Mourant was passionately interested in other aspects of anthropology. The farm where he was born was only 200 yards away from the tumulus of La Hougue Bie which covers one of the finest Neolithic passage graves in Western Europe and Mourant took part in its exposure and was associated with it throughout his life. In 1961 he received the Huxley memorial award from the Royal Anthropological Institute. He was elected FRS in 1966.

Mourant also had a life long interest in geology. If one travelled with him in mountainous areas there were always requests for stops. Arthur would hop out, apply the geological hammer he always carried to some outcrop, and add one more piece of rock to his already bulging pockets. He received many awards for his work in this field.

When he retired from his work in London in 1976 he returned to Jersey where he was particularly appreciated. In 1990 the Société Jersiaise commissioned a bronze of him. At the time of his death from a heart attack he had almost completed his autobiography and it has since been published.

P Mollison

[Brit.med.J., 1994,309,801; Bull.Roy.Coll.Path., 1995,89,6-7; The Independent, 6 Sept 1994]

(Volume X, page 348)

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