Lives of the fellows

Lionel Sharples Penrose

b.11 June 1898 d.12 May 1972
BA Cantab(1921) MA(1926) MRCS LRCP(1928) MD(1930) FRS(1953) FRCP(1962) FRCPsych(1971) Hon DSc McGill(1958) Hon MD Gӧteborg(1966) Hon DSc Edin(1968) Newcastle(1968)

Lionel Sharples Penrose was Galton professor of eugenics at University College London, and later emeritus professor. He was also director of the Kennedy-Galton Centre, Harperbury Hospital, St Albans, and an outstanding authority on the genetics of mental deficiency. He was born in London, the son of James Doyle Penrose, artist, and his wife Elizabeth Josephine, daughter of Alexander Peckover, a banker. He was educated at The Downs Preparatory School, Colwall; Leighton Park School, Reading, and St. John’s College, Cambridge. His education was interrupted by a period of service with the Friends Ambulance Unit in 1918.

At Cambridge he gained a first class degree in moral sciences. He then did a year’s study in the psychological department at Vienna University before entering St Thomas’s Hospital for clinical studies. He qualified with the Conjoint in 1928, proceeding MD in 1930. After a few months as assistant in the pathological laboratory at St Thomas’s, he went as research student to Cardiff City Mental Hospital. A year later he was appointed resident director of the Royal Eastern Counties Institution at Colchester where, in cooperation with the MRC, he did research into the causes of mental defect, the results of which were the subject of an MRC special report: No.229, Clinical and genetic study of 1,280 cases of mental defect, (1938). From 1939 to 1945 he was director of psychiatric research in Ontario, lecturer in psychiatry at the University of Western Ontario, and medical statistician to the province. In 1945 he returned to England to become Galton professor of eugenics at University College London. After his retirement he was made emeritus professor, and was appointed director of the Kennedy Galton Centre where he continued to do exceptional work until his death.

His major contributions were in human genetics, but his interests were wide ranging. He did important research on schizophrenia, he designed non-verbal tests of intelligence which are still in current use, and was one of the earliest workers on phenylketonuria in the 1930s. Many of his interests in biology, for example finger-prints, demography, and cytogenetics, stemmed from his preoccupation with the problem of mental defect, especially mongolism. He did intensive research on the latter, communicating the results of his investigations in 1963, at the time of the award of the Joseph P.Kennedy Foundation on mental retardation. Many honours and distinctions were bestowed on him. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1953, and a Fellow of the College in 1962. He also received the honorary DSc from McGill, Edinburgh and Newcastle, and the honorary MD from Gӧteborg. During the 18th World Health Assembly in Geneva he was honoured with the first annual award by the Leon Barnard Foundation for research in the field of mental subnormality.

Lionel Penrose was a prolific writer and among his publications are The Influence of Heredity on Disease, The Biology of Mental Defect, The Objective Study of Crowd Behaviour, and Outline of Human Genetics.

In 1928 he married Margaret, daughter of Professor J.B. Leathes, FRS, who was professor of physiology at the University of Sheffield and a Fellow of the College. She herself was a medical practitioner. They had four children: Oliver, who is a professor of mathematics at the Open University; Roger, who is Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics, Oxford; Jonathan, international chess master and many times British Chess Champion, and Shirley Victoria, a paediatrician. Lionel Penrose ws a superb chess player who composed many chess problems and at least one or two excellent endgame studies, and this interest was shared not only by his son Jonathan but by all the family.

Penrose came from a long line of Quakers, and was deeply opposed to any form of war, which he regarded as a wasteful and damaging human activity which must be prevented if at all possible. To this end he believed that its causes should be studied objectively and that the medical profession, because of its ethical commitment to human welfare and its traditional role of non-involvement in hostilities, had a unique role to play. In 1952, when the war in Korea looked as if it might develop into a third world war, he founded with some like-minded colleagues the Medical Association for the Prevention of War. At the time of the association’s foundation, Lionel Penrose believed that war presented an analogy with disease and could be dealt with scientifically. Later, however, he came to realise that while the removal of disease requires no substitution, the abolition of war does, in order to fulfil some profound impulse in the human race.

If at times Lionel Penrose was mildly abstracted, his absorption in intellectual pursuits did not make him solemn or remote. With his humour and keen sense of the ridiculous he could be a delightful companion, except perhaps to the pretentious. As well as chess, he played the spinnet, painted, was expert at woodcuts, and made many puzzles for his grandchildren. He was one of the most able intellectual leaders in the field of human genetics in his generation.

Sir Gordon Wolstenholme
V Luniewska

[Biogr.Mem.Roy.Soc., 1973, 19, 521-561; Times, 29 May, 6 June, 1972; Brit.med.J., 1972, 2, 471; Lancet, 1974, 1, 1188 & 1403; J. Roy. Coll. Phycns Lond., 1974, 8, No. 3, 237-250; J. med. Genetics, 1974, 11, 1-24; Brit. J. Psychiat., 1974, 125, 517-67]

(Volume VI, page 375)

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