Lives of the fellows

Charles Cyril Okell

b.10 December 1888 d.8 February 1939
MC(1916) BA Cantab(1911) MB BCh Cantab(1921) DPH Lond(1923) DTM&H Lond(1930) MA Cantab(1936) ScD Cantab(1937) MRCS LRCP(1915) MRCP(1921) FRCP(1932)

Charles Cyril Okell was born at Douglas, Isle of Man, the elder son of Charles Percy and Marianne (née Kinley) Okell, and was educated at Douglas Grammar School and St. John’s College, Cambridge. From his early student days he read widely; the natural sciences, literature, philosophy, music, art, the drama, and theology all aroused his enthusiasm from time to time. From Cambridge he went to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, London, where he won the Skinner, Wix and Hichens prizes and the Brackenbury scholarship in medicine. During this fruitful period as a student of medicine his early love of literature was not neglected, for he characteristically used the Wix prize to purchase a selection of the works of early English authors. He took the conjoint diploma in 1915, and remained for a few months at his hospital as house physician to Dr (afterwards Lord) Horder before joining the R.A.M.C, and serving in France, Palestine and Egypt.

From 1921 to 1930 Okell was a member of the staff of the Wellcome Research Laboratories at Beckenham, first as assistant bacteriologist for three years and then as head of the bacteriology department for seven years. During this period he made solid contributions to many branches of bacteriology related to immunity. He carried forward vigorously work on the specific prophylaxis of diphtheria and scarlet fever, mostly in collaboration with R. A. O’Brien and H. J. Parish. He contributed to veterinary medicine the discovery—with T. Dalling and L. P. Pugh—that the widespread diseases of dogs called ‘yellows’ was leptospirosis. He also collaborated with E. Hindle in exploring the possibility of vaccinating monkeys against the virus of yellow fever—work which at that time involved considerable risk.

From 1930, as professor of bacteriology at University College Hospital, he quickly stimulated valuable research on streptococcal infections. He worked with S. D. Elliott on the transient bacteraemia, which is associated with dental sepsis and tooth extraction. Their further investigations on hospital cross infections drew attention to the defects of existing methods of nursing and isolation, not only in otorhinological wards and in fever hospitals, but in general hospital practice as well. In 1932 he chose the haemolytic streptococci as the subject for the Milroy lectures.

Not only was Okell lucid and telling in public utterance and an excellent teacher, but he also had a fluent pen and leanings towards journalism, which found abundant scope during the latter part of his medical career. From 1930 he devoted much of his spare time to reviewing bacteriological literature, and from 1932 to 1937 he was assistant editor of the Journal of Pathology and Bacteriology. In 1937 he became editor of the Journal of Hygiene in succession to Professor G. H. F. Nuttall.

Okell had been invalided from the Army with a ‘rheumatic’ complaint, which was apparently connected with the hardships he had undergone. Although quiescent, it may have predisposed him to the crippling polyarthritis which began to cause concern in the latter part of 1933. The disease was active and progressive till 1937, when he was left with a rigid spine and damage to many joints, especially of the lower limbs. However, he retained his rare spirit and stable philosophy, undaunted by the bleakness of his future. He resigned his chair at the end of 1936, and in 1937 returned to Cambridge where he lived in congenial proximity to Sir Charles Martin, a former director of the Lister Institute. His editorial and literary work was carried on under difficulties till shortly before his death in 1939. During 1938 he also undertook the supervision of students who were reading pathology for part ii of the natural sciences tripos and visited him at his home for informal discussions outside the confines of University departments. His lively mind, enthusiasm, friendliness and magnificent courage evoked a response in all with whom he came in contact. Throughout the period of his greatest incapacity his elder daughter acted as his amanuensis and was indispensible to him.

He married, in 1917, Dorothy Gladys, younger daughter of Mr W. O. Roberts, of Loughborough. They had two daughters.

Richard R Trail

[Brit.med.J., 1939, 1, 362; J. Hyg., 1939, 39, 217-23, bibl. ; J.Path.Bact., 1939, 48, 611-20 (p), bibl.; Lancet, 1939, 1, 422-3 (p), 482; Nature (Lond.), 1939, 143, 508; Times, 8 Feb. 1939; Univ. Coll. Hosp. Mag., 1939, 24, 86-7.]

(Volume V, page 309)

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