Lives of the fellows

Robert James Valentine Pulvertaft

b.14 February 1897 d.30 March 1990
OBE(1944) MRCS LRCP(1923) MRCP(1927) MD Cantab(1933) FRCP(1938) FRCPath(1963)

Robert (Robin or ‘Bulgy’) Pulvertaft was what we used to call ‘. . . quite a character’. The singularity of his surname, and the romantic date of his birth - hence the Valentine - were appropriate attributes in this eccentric genius. He claimed that all the Pulvertafts in Britain were inter-related, that the name originated in East Anglia and meant (probably with tongue in cheek) in Old English ‘a heap of dust’. It so happens that some years ago, while wandering round a tiny village in Suffolk, I came on a list of vicars one of whom was a 16th century ‘Polvertaft’.

Robin’s father was an English clergyman, his mother was Irish. The Revd T J Pulvertaft held an incumbancy in Cork, where Robin was born - these are perhaps significant details for he grew up with all the humour, gaiety and mecurial temperament of the Irish. From Westminster School he won a classics scholarship to Cambridge but further studies were interrupted by the first world war. He saw service as a lieutenant in the 34th Royal Sussex Regiment in Palestine, was later seconded to the Royal Flying Corps as an observer and finally became a bomber pilot in the 205th Squadron of the Royal Air Force, in France.

After demobilization he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, as a senior exhibitioner and took the Part II tripos in physiology. His medical studies were completed at St Thomas’ Hospital, London, and after graduation he began a laboratory career at that same hospital. His first publications indicate experience in various laboratory disciplines and after a series of research scholarships he was made a reader in London University.

In 1931 he was appointed director of laboratories at Westminster Hospital. In those days laboratory disciplines were not always divided into separate departments and this is reflected in his prewar scientific papers which, while mainly bacteriological, also embraced histopathology and haematology. He acquired his Cambridge MD, with gold medal m microbiology, in 1933, followed a few years later by his fellowship of the College. A few months before the outbreak of the second world war the newly-built Westminster Hospital was opened. Pulvertaft played a large part in the design of the medical school laboratories and classrooms and, particularly, in that of the most modern pathological museum in London.

For the second time war interrupted his academic career and he joined the RAMC as pathologist to the 64th General Hospital in Alexandria. His seniority in age and his military experience soon led to his appointment as assistant director of pathology, MEF, with the rank of lieutenant colonel. This involved command of the Central Laboratory, MEF, housed in the 15th (Scottish) General Hospital in Cairo.

In 1943 he interested himself in the bacteriology of war wounds and obtained from H W Florey, later Lord Florey [Munk's Roll, Vol.VI, p.178], a sample of his penicillium. In his own laboratory Pulvertaft prepared extensive cultures of the mould in countless tanks of broth from which he extracted a crude filtrate which was then applied to infected wounds of battle casualties. The hospital’s surgeons were distinctly impressed by the results. Concern was felt, however, by Florey who did not want his own efforts to extract a purer penicillin for systemic injection to be jeopardised by the local application of a crude brew. Representatives flew to Cairo to see what Pulvertaft was up to but he managed to reassure them, to everyone’s satisfaction.

In December 1943 he was flown to Bizerta as one of a team of doctors summoned to the bedside of Winston Churchill, later Sir Winston [Munk's Roll,Vol.V, p.73], who had been suddenly stricken with pneumonia. By Robin’s own account the scene was somewhat chaotic and his first act was to hunt around the town until he found a bedside commode for the great man - something nobody had thought of. But he was rather at a loss, on taking a blood sample, when Winston abruptly asked him ‘What are eosinophiles for?’

In 1944 Pulvertaft was transferred - I think at his own request - to Jerusalem as ADP Palestine. The following year he returned to England to become ADP Northern Command. He was awarded the OBE.

During his service in Egypt he had studied the Goodenough Report, in which the recommendation was made that in future all teaching hospital laboratories should be broken down into sub-departments of microbioloy, histopathology, haematology and chemical pathology. On resuming his post at Westminster he at once set about implementing these recommendations, he himself becoming the first professor of clinical pathology in London. In practice this amounted to handing over all the clinical diagnostic work to his junior colleagues while he concentrated on research and teaching. His augmented team were young, enthusiastic and mutually cooperative, and within a few years the pass rate in pathology was second to none in London. It was no secret that in the immediate postwar years the University Grants Committee had given a thumbs down report on Westminster as a teaching hospital as it had no pre-clinical school and no clinical professors, but that it had been saved from extinction by the excellent reports on the pathology departments.

Robin’s own lectures were as popular as they were unorthodox, and heavily laced with laughter. When he set the classroom in a roar the explosion could be heard in distant laboratories. For him, the generating of enthusiasm was more important than the imparting of facts obtainable in any textbook and during the 1960s, at a time when medical chairs were more scarce than they are today, no less than four professors of pathology in London had been his pupils.

His main researches now lay in the study of living lymphocytes and their movements and behaviour in vitro, especially in the presence of tumour cells in tissue culture. By means of cinemicrography he recorded the hitherto undescribed phenomenon of lymphocytes moving round tumour cells, to which he applied the term ‘emperipolesis’. For some years, at scientific meetings, his films of this phenomenon -accompanied by racy commentaries - were a popular event.

He was elected president of the Association of Clinical Pathologists in 1953 and an honorary fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine after his retirement in 1962. Retirement from his chair at Westminster, that is, for he was soon appointed visiting professor at University College, Ibadan, in Nigeria, and later in a similar capacity at Makerere University College, Kampala, Uganda, where he continued his researches on lymphocytes - this time in relation to the African lymphoma. He was accompanied by his delightful Irish wife, Isabel, who had been a fellow student during his years at Cambridge. Because of a shortage of suitable technicians she became his laboratory assistant. Before he finally retired to his thatched cottage in Dorset, at the age of 70, I was informed by a member of the Medical Research Council that this late work was highly regarded by them.

A decade later Robin moved to Cambridge, where one of his daughters lived. In 1985 his wife died and, thereafter, he began to feel the isolation of those who outlive all their contemporaries. To them and to later generations he was affectionately known as ‘Bulgy’ on account of his expressive but slightly protuberant eyes. In his prime he was a handsome man, with sensitive features and a well-knit frame. The masculine resonance of his voice belied a very emotional temperament. But it is especially for his gift of laughter that his friends will remember him; in or out of the laboratory, in classroom or refectory, his wit and lovable eccentricities were predominant. We always knew when a joke was on the way. Standing stiffly cross-legged, his hands thrust deep in his trouser pockets, he would begin to sway backwards and forwards - rather like a praying mantis about to strike -until the ultimate bon mot became drowned in our shouts of laughter. Any party at which he was a guest was a guaranteed success and he could ‘click’ with all but the stuffiest of people. Even the most outrageous of his jokes were redeemed by their comic quality.

Once, during an oral examination, he asked a student ‘What is Haig’s Test for gall stones?’. The student was nonplussed, not appreciating that the reference was to Haig of the notorious acid bath murders, where the only trace left of one of his victims was an undissolved gall stone. The co-examiner murmured ‘Really, Pulvertaft!’ But he relished absurdities, even at his own expense; for example when, as president of the Association of Clinical Pathologists, he threw a cocktail party at his home during a meeting. Attracted by the one figure wearing a dinner-jacket - but without a drink - he offered to bring him some wine, only to receive a polite refusal as his ‘guest’ was a waiter sent by the hired caterer.

Outside the laboratory Robin rarely talked shop and his conversation revealed a sharp intellect and wide reading. Some of the poems he wrote impressed. Above all, he was never, never dull and it was a privilege to know him. He is survived by a doctor son, Tom; his novelist daughter, Lalage, and their sister Rosalind.

A D Morgan

[The Times, 11 Apr 1990;The Independent, 6 Apr 1990; Med.History, 1990,34,320-326; Bulletin, RCPaths,71 June 1990]

(Volume IX, page 432)

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