Lives of the fellows

Robert Russell Race

b.28 November 1907 d.15 April 1984
CBE(1970) MRCS LRCP(1933) PhD Cantab(1948) FRS(1952) FRCP(1959) Hon MD Paris(1959) Hon MD Turku(1970) Hon FRCPath(1972)

Robert Race described his entry into the world of blood groups - which he was later to dominate - in the following way: having drifted into clinical pathology after an undistinguished career as a medical student he was leafing through the pages of the BMJ when an advertisement for a job in the Galton Laboratory Serum Unit caught his eye. Not knowing quite what serology was, he went for an interview, conducted by the formidable R A Fisher. He was bowled over by Fisher’s imaginative account of what might be done with blood groups in mapping human chromosomes and joined the unit, which soon moved to Cambridge on the outbreak of the second world war. Work was confined almost entirely to ABO groups until the discovery of the Rh system, in the USA, opened up exciting new possibilites. Soon sera revealing a bewildering pattern of reactions were arriving in the laboratory. Meanwhile, G L Taylor [Munk's Roll, Vol.V, p.405] had died and Race was running the laboratory; he discussed his new findings with R A Fisher over beer in the ‘Bun Shop’. R A Fisher immediately, on the back of an envelope, wrote out his suggested CDE scheme, showing how antithetical reactions between anti-c, anti-C etc., would explain all that had been found and, furthermore, predicting what else might soon be found. This scheme was promptly accepted with gratitude and relief by a wide circle of people who felt that otherwise they would have no chance of understanding developments in the Rh field. Unhappily, at the same time, A S Wiener in the USA who had played a major role in discovering the Rh system, saw the CDE scheme as both incorrect in principle - since it seemed to postulate three sets of closely linked genes rather than a single complex locus - and a threat to his own position, since it appeared to be taking over a blood group system in which he had a certain proprietary right. The disagreement between the supporters of Wiener, on the one hand, and Race and Fisher, on the other, was to last a very long time. Indeed, up to the time of Race’s death no really satisfactory scheme for the genetics of the Rh system had been proposed, although the CDE terminology had almost completely replaced Wiener’s.

At the end of the war, at the instigation of A N Drury, later Sir Alan [Munk's Roll, Vol.VII, p.169], who had become director of the Lister Institute, the Medical Research Council took on the responsibility for the Galton Laboratory Serum Unit, which became the Blood Group Research Unit and moved into a position on the second floor of the Lister Institute, looking out over the Thames. In this atmosphere Race was extremely happy and the unit now gathered momentum in an impressive way. One of the first new recruits to the laboratory was Ruth Sanger, who had come from Australia on a fellowship from the Red Cross, and she and Race soon announced an important finding; namely, that the newly discovered antigen S was genetically linked to M and N. This discovery was one of a very large series to be made in the next 20 years, in which a whole host of antigens was fitted into a dozen or more major blood group systems, each system being inherited independently of the others. Race’s reputation grew rapidly and soon blood samples were being sent to his laboratory from all over the world, notably from the USA which regarded him as the final Court of Appeal on any problem in his field.

Amongst the many important discoveries made by Race’s unit were: the finding of -D-, ce and ceó(V); the discovery of the Oé(‘Bombay’) phenotype and of the ‘null’ phenotypes S-s- and Fy(a-b-); the recognition of an acquired form of the B antigen and of the first human chimera and, finally, the discovery of Xgá, determined by an X-borne gene. This very impressive catalogue, which is far from complete, established Race’s central role in the development of his subject.

Race did not have formidable intellectual powers but he did have endless tenacity and tremendous enthusiasm, linked to a notable flair for imagining unusual solutions to problems. This last talent was reflected in his conversation which often took surprising turns and was invariably entertaining, and also in his writing, particularly as reflected in his textbook with Ruth Sanger: Blood groups in man, Oxford, Blackwell Scientific Publications, 1975, in which a wholly serious approach to the subject was leavened by many droll comments. This textbook, of which the first edition was published in 1950 and the sixth in 1975, was a really outstanding work which made Race and Ruth Sanger (later his wife) known and highly respected wherever in the world there was any interest in blood groups.

Rob Race was a rather retiring man and was happiest with very small groups of people. Throughout his career he carried out much of his serious business in pubs; there he met his scientific friends, speculated about the interpretation of recent findings, and even wrote lectures. At larger meetings he was nervous and did not like to take part in discussions unless to communicate something which he had prepared with great care. When he did give a paper he was masterly, because he had the power to make complex subjects simple, and he had a command of the English language which reflected his strong interest in literature.

Race was married twice: first in 1938 to Monica Rotton, with whom he had three daughters, and after Monicas’s death he married Ruth Sanger in 1956, with whom he did so much of his work and who looked after him in his final, protracted illness.

P L Mollison

[Brit.med.J., 1984,288,1544; Lancet, 1984,1,1085; The Times, 1 May 1984]

(Volume VIII, page 403)

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