Lives of the fellows

William Drummond Macdonald (Sir) Paton

b.5 May 1917 d.17 October 1993
Kt(1979) CBE(1968) BA Oxon(1938) MB BCh(1942) MA(1947) DM(1953) FRS(1956) *FRCP(1969) FRSA(1973) FFA RCS(1975)

Bill Paton was the son of a Presbyterian minister and missionary, and his maternal grandfather was also a Presbyterian minister. This background, and an education at Repton and New College, Oxford, provided Bill with his transparently honest, moral, straightforward and disciplined character. He was born in Hendon and his early education was at Winchester House preparatory school, Brackley. Up at Oxford he took a BA in animal physiology, with first class honours, winning the Theodore Williams scholarship in physiology. In 1939 he was awarded a Goldsmid exhibition to University College London and studied medicine at University College Hospital, where he obtained the Fellows gold medal in clinical medicine. It was the time of the second world war, he qualified during the ‘blitz’ and his first post was as house physician to the medical unit at UCH.

Bill had been dogged by recurrent bouts of pneumonia since childhood. He was found unfit for military service and he thought that he might not have the stamina to do the residences required for a career in medicine; he therefore took up the post of a pathologist in a tuberculosis sanatorium. A chance professional contact attracted him to a job at the National Institute for Medical Research, then in Hampstead. It was there that his career as a pharmacologist of world rank began.

He was a member of the scientific staff of NIMR for eight years. During this period he described chemically mediated histamine release and moved on to the work with which he is mainly associated: the pharmacology of acetylcholine and the demonstration by pharmacological techniques of its two different actions, on the one hand to produce contraction of skeletal muscle and on the other its automatic ganglionic action, particularly important in the control of blood pressure. His discoveries on the pharmacology of neuromuscular blockade have found enormous application in surgery, and the ganglion blockers were the first drugs used in the treatment of hypertension. Although ganglion blockers are rarely used now in the treatment of hypertension it was this breakthrough that led to the scientific optimism about the control of high blood pressure, and which fostered the work leading to subsequent discoveries. The research on ganglion blockers was done with Nora Zaimis and they both received several honours and prizes for this work. Bill received the Benque prize in 1952 and was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1956. He shared the Cameron prize with Nora Zaimis that same year and also the Gardiner Foundation award in 1959.

During his time at NIMR, Bill was plainly developing and he began to get restless, wishing to be his own master. So in 1952 he became reader in applied pharmacology at his old hospital, UCH, and his laboratory was established in the medical unit. In the 1950s he had started to work on submarine physiology at NIMR and, in one way or another, he continued this for the rest of his life. The problem was that, because of convulsions, divers were limited to working at depths which did not exceed 200ft below sea level. It was thought that the convulsions were caused by the effects of oxygen and helium at high pressure. Paton, however, found that it was the high pressure itself. He and his colleague, E B Smith, discovered that high pressure was in fact able to reverse the anaesthetic effect of gases anaesthetics. By a complex series of creative thought this led to experiments on a mixture of oxygen, helium and nitrogen (Tri-mix) enabling divers to work at depths of around 2000ft, which has also enabled the oil industry to plumb the ocean depths for oil.

In 1954 Bill Paton moved again and became professor of pharmacology at the Royal College of Surgeons of England. He remained there until 1959 when he was appointed professor of pharmacology in the University of Oxford and fellow of Balliol College, where he stayed until his retirement. In Oxford he continued his work on the high pressure neurological syndrome, with Brian Smith in physical chemistry. His work on neuromuscular blockade and the actions of acetylcholine caused him to think deeply about the nature of the receptor function. It was his involvement with ‘the receptor rate theory’ in 1959 that gave me greater insight into his mind and, scientifically, impressed me most. He struggled to understand a phenomenon down to the most profound reductionist level but, at that time, it was not possible to work it through completely since there were neither the tools to tackle it, nor the biophysical insight to understand the problem. His mathematical approach to the problem, his development of models with which to study it, and the reflective and truly philosophical way in which he thought about them were outstanding.

Bill Paton sat on a great many important committees; at one time it was 72 and he chaired many of them. There were a number of paradoxes in his character; he would find it repugnant to have to make a judgement about the value of individual scientific work and scientists, but he seems to have accepted the responsibility. Realizing that it had to be done, he did his best. He made important contributions to the defence of animal experimentation and his book Man and mouse: animals in medical research, Oxford, OUP, 1984, is a classic work. The expanded second edition, which he extensively revised, was published this year and scientists should be grateful to him. He also became heavily involved in the understanding of drug misuse, investigated the pharmacology and effects of cannabis and gave valuable advice to the government agencies concerned. Once again, his scientific perception cut through a good deal of social babble.

Bill believed one had to keep one’s nerve during the ups-and-downs of a career, to be open minded and refuse to believe in the conspiracy theory when things seem to be going wrong. He also thought that one should work along ‘the grain’ of one’s own mind and do the things one feels are good, interesting and worthwhile. With a man as honest and with such a fine-honed sense of duty as Bill Paton, that was good advice.

He served the scientific society remarkably well; he was a Rhodes Trustee, a Wellcome Trustee, a member of the Council of the Royal Society and a highly regarded honorary director of the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine from 1983-87. He was chairman of the Research Defence Society and at one time chairman of the Pharmacological Society and the Committee for the Supression of Doping. He was appointed a CBE in 1968 and knighted in 1979.

He married Phoebe Margaret Rook, daughter of an engineer, in 1942. She survived him; there were no children of the marriage. Although one felt one had better not indulge in sloppy thinking when in his presence, he was in fact a kindly, sympathetic man with an excellent sense of humour.

D G Grahame-Smith

* Elected under the special bye-law which provides for the election to the fellowship of "Persons holding a medical qualification, but not Members of the College, who have distinguished themselves in the practice of medicine, or in the pursuit of Medical or General Science or Literature.."

[The Independent, 6 Nov & 23 Dec 1993;The Times, 31 Oct 1993; The Daily Telegraph, 25 Oct 1993; The Guardian, 29 Oct 1993; MRC News, Winter 1994,p.35]

(Volume IX, page 410)

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