Lives of the fellows

Hamish Nisbet Munro

b.3 July 1915 d.28 October 1994
BSc Glasg(1936) MB(1939) DSc(1956) Hon MD Nancy(1982) MD(1983) FRCP(1989)

Hamish Nisbet Munro qualified in medicine from Glasgow University, after first taking a BSc in physiology. The influence of this early scientific training remained with him throughout his life and it was mainly as a nutritional biochemist that he gained his international reputation.

Hamish came from a relatively humble background and his early schooling was at an isolated Highlands village school. It must have been an unusual village school since it introduced him to linguistics as well as to more scientific pursuits. His repertoire ultimately included French, Latin, Anglo Saxon, Medieval English, German, Italian and Spanish. As is the case with many truly great men, he was a recognized authority on many subjects, not only the one for which he became internationally renowned. He became a member of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, in 1974 and won the Bristol Myers prize in 1981. Towards the end of his academic career, being presented with one of the British Rank prize fund awards, he bought a derelict Thames barge which he painstakingly restored to its original state, with a zeal for historical accuracy. This despite the fact that he was mainly resident in the United States. It was rumoured that he wanted to be the first person to cross the Atlantic in a Thames barge but this epic voyage never took place.

During the Second World War Hamish Munro’s responsibilities primarily involved the teaching of clinical medicine but, because of staff shortages, he also had to operate a VD clinic, a blood transfusion service and a large pathology department. Despite this time consuming work, his mind remained open to scientific opportunities and he was able to make successful applications to the Medical Research Council for grants to study several issues, including metabolic responses to injury. He had a close association with the charismatic scientist David Cuthbertson, later Sir David, which no doubt contributed to his interests.

During the course of his career Hamish held three chairs; between 1947 and 1966 he worked his way up through the ranks to professor of biochemistry within the University of Glasgow and during this time he prepared the four classic volumes Mammalian protein metabolism (New York, Academic Press, 1964 to 1970). The positive contribution this work has made to nutritional understanding is immense. In 1966 he joined the ‘brain drain and moved to the department of nutrition and food science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he became professor of physiological chemistry. It was here that he came into close contact with Nevin Scrimshaw. It would be misleading to claim that these two intellectual giants always saw eye to eye but the synthesis of their experiences contributed greatly to our current knowledge of protein requirements in people of all ages. Hamish also became the mentor of another expatriate from Britain, Vernon Young, and together they enhanced our knowledge of the requirements for individual amino acids.

In 1972 the MRC tried to attract Hamish back to the UK and offered him the directorship of the Dunn Nutrition Unit in Cambridge. Initially he accepted the offer but, being unable to obtain categorical assurances that they would re-house the Dunn on the Addenbrookes Hospital site, he eventually decided to remain in Massachusetts. Ironically, it was not until the year he died that plans for the building were finalized.

He remained on the staff of the department of nutrition and food science at MIT until 1990. Concurrently, he was appointed professor of medicine and nutrition at Tufts University in 1979, and from 1980 to 1984 he was also the founding director of the US Department of Agriculture nutrition research centre on ageing. He was still at Tufts University when he died.

Everyone who worked with Hamish Munro was astonished at his prodigious ability to write scientific papers, books and scientific reviews. Few have had the same capacity to produce first drafts which were also the final version. Demanding dedication and tenacity of purpose from himself, Hamish could be intolerant of shortcomings in others. The toughest and the most intellectually bright were able to withstand these onslaughts and he has left behind him many young prodigies who are rapidly becoming just as eminent as their master.

He married Edith Ekron (née Little), a psychiatrist. They had a daughter and three sons.

R G Whitehead

[Brit.med.J., 1995,310,1000-1 ; The Independent, 11 Nov 1994]

(Volume X, page 352)

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