Lives of the fellows

Philip Francis Benson

b.29 January 1928 d.10 August 1997
MB BS Lond(1950) DCH(1955) MRCP(1956) MSc(1965) PhD(1969) MD(1973) MRCPath(1974) FRCP(1977) FRCPath(1979)

Philip Francis Benson was a clinical geneticist and consultant paediatrician at Guys. He was born in Rome, the son of an English artist and an Italian mother. His father had settled in Rome following the award of the Prix de Rome from the Slade School of Fine Art, and much of Philip’s early childhood in Italy was spent with his two brothers within the artistic and philosophical milieu created by his father and his friends. Of particular influence was Bertie Moore (brother of the philosopher George Edward Moore and of the wood engraver and poet Thomas Sturge Moore), a long-term friend of the Bensons who lived with them until his death in 1955. When Philip went to school in England science and mathematics captured his imagination. Although this led to medicine as his choice of career, the early influences of his life in Italy never left him. He retained an interest in philosophy and the arts throughout his life and, while completing his medical training, he also studied music and became an accomplished pianist.

He studied medicine at St Thomas’s Hospital and qualified in 1950. Two years after qualifying he did two years National Service as physician in charge of hospital medical services in Egypt and Libya. From 1952 to 1962 he developed his interest in paediatrics, working amid a galaxy of clinical scientists at the Evelina Children’s Hospital of Guy’s Hospital, the Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street and the paediatrics department of University College Hospital. He spent one year as a researcher, working with Victor McKusick at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, where he developed an interest in the mucopolysaccharidoses and other connective tissue disorders.

In 1962 he joined Paul Polani’s newly formed paediatric research unit at Guy’s Hospital Medical School. The unit was established by the Spastics Society (now Scope) as a multi-disciplinary group for the study and prevention of cerebral palsy and other inherited conditions. The Society endowed a chair of paediatric research and six lectureships, allowing Polani to assemble a talented team with expertise in paediatrics, epidemiology, immunology, biology, biochemistry and cytogenetics to address the problems of developmental delay, with genetics as the underlying current that would inspire the research. During his years with Polani Benson took a degree in biochemistry at University College London and obtained PhD and MD degrees for his work on protein and RNA synthesis in Down’s syndrome.

He was appointed the first director of the supraregional assay service laboratory for genetic enzyme defects at Guy’s when the service was established in 1973. Around this time he carried out, in collaboration with colleagues at the Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology, London, and St Mary’s Hospital Medical School, some of the earliest attempts at enzyme replacement therapy in the mucopolysaccharidoses. He published widely on the inborn errors of metabolism and, with Anthony Fensom, wrote Genetic biochemical disorders, Oxford University Press, 1985. He was a member of the editorial boards of Spastics International Medical Publications and Prenatal Diagnosis.

In 1983 he left Guy’s to work in the United Arab Emirates as consultant paediatrician and deputy director to Al Qassimi Hospital, Sharjah. He also served as chairman of the medical staff committee at Al Qassimi Hospital where his judicious and helpful work earned him the respect of his colleagues. He took a great interest in the teaching of medical genetics while in the UAE and retained contact with the staff after returning to England. Since recessive disorders are common in the UAE he was able to continue his interest in inborn errors of metabolism while working in Sharjah, and discovered many undiagnosed cases. He would send appropriate specimens to his old laboratory at Guy’s where his astute clinical suspicion of a diagnosis was invariably confirmed by biochemical testing.

After returning to England in 1990 he served as consultant paediatrician at several hospitals, including the Cambridge Military Hospital, Aldershot, and King Edward VII Hospital, Midhurst, before retiring due to ill health. During his illness he continued to play his piano for as long as he was able, especially the music of Beethoven and Chopin which he particularly loved.

Philip Benson was a man of courtesy, humanity and strict professional standards. He belonged to a generation of physicians who were equally at home in the laboratory as in the hospital ward, and well aware that the successful study of metabolic patients requires the skills of the doctor and the scientist to be closely integrated. He was a fine teacher, an excellent team leader and was greatly respected by his professional colleagues. He leaves a wife, Julia, and a son from a previous marriage.

A H Fensom

[Brit.med.J., 1997,3 I 5,1238]

(Volume X, page 27)

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