Lives of the fellows

Philip Macdonald Sheppard

b.27 July 1921 d.11 October 1976
FRS(1970) Hon FRCP(1975)

Philip Sheppard died from acute leukaemia at the age of 55. In 1956 he came from Oxford to the University of Liverpool and was head of the department of genetics from 1959. He was particularly distinguished for contributions to ecological genetics, his central interest being how natural selection works and its effect on the genetic constitution of organisms. His genius lay in the experimental approach, whether it was with butterflies, moths, snails or man. He was elected FRS in 1970. He was awarded the Darwin medal of the Society in 1974 and in the same year received the gold medal of the Linnaean society. In 1975 he was elected an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of London.

Philip was born at Marlborough, the only child of George Sheppard, the mathematics master at Bradfield College, and Alison, born Macdonald. His father had been a ward of the Harmsworths (Lady Harmsworth was Philip’s godmother), and his mother was related to the Comfords and consequently, by marriage, to the Darwins. However, Philip had no Darwin genes, and it is of interest that his Darwinian outlook was entirely the result of environmental factors - his upbringing, his teachers and his training; a phenocopy if ever there was one.

He went to school at Marlborough College, and is best remembered there for making the natural history society one of the best in the country. At the age of eighteen he joined the RAFVR and after training in the USA and Canada, he became a navigator and was on the first 1000 bomber raid on Cologne. He was taken prisoner of war on his sixteenth operational flight on 27 July, his twenty-first birthday. He was rescued by an enemy minesweeper; the Germans treated him well and Philip was taken on the bridge to be shown where they were. Being a navigator he realized that they were in the centre of the area where they had been dropping mines a few nights previously.

After the war he read honours zoology at Oxford and came under the influence of EB Ford, who introduced him to the science of ecological genetics. It was this discipline that was to be his great strength. He was an excellent naturalist and a genuine biologist as well as a geneticist, and this led to his interests becoming extremely wide. A colleague writes that his comments on cherished ideas were sometimes blunt to the point of pain, but they were always given with good humour and never tinged with malice. His friends said that he reversed the normal academic procedure; he stabbed you in the front, and did you favours by stealth.

I persuaded him to come to Liverpool in 1956 by the simple method of telling him that I did not think the post would suit him. It worked! and we had a very happy association for more than 20 years, working initially on the genetics of hybrid butterflies and then extending into a study of evolution of mimicry.

During the early days it seemed to me that we should begin applying Philip’s knowledge to medicine. One day, motoring to the Norfolk Broads, I asked him his views. ‘Blood groups’ he said, and blood groups it was, for he had been well trained in the EB Ford school, and Ford himself in 1945 had suggested that factors such as disease might be responsible for the maintenance of the polymorphism in the ABO and other blood groups. We started with group O and duodenal ulcer and then, much more importantly, became interested in the Rhesus complex and so into the prevention of Rhesus haemolytic disease of the newborn. This led to the Liverpool team developing a safe and reliable method for the prophylaxis of Rhesus immunization, which has been standard practice by the NHS since 1968. Philip’s expertise as a statistician and geneticist was of fundamental value in this very interesting piece of work. During these early years the Nuffield Foundation, impressed I think by the clinical enthusiasm of the Liverpool physicians together with Philip’s professional abilities, set up the Nuffield Unit of Medical Genetics, and Philip remained a key member of the unit from its inauguration (in 1963) until the time of his death.

It was said of Philip that he disliked committees, but if he gave his mind to a topic he could be of great value, and I had no hesitation in appointing him to the RCP fluoride committee to assess the value and safety of the fluoridation of water supplies in the prevention of dental caries. It was evident to both of us that the evidence was overwhelmingly in favour of the prophylaxis, yet at one stage we had some difficulty in obtaining complete unanimity among our members. Philip and I therefore one weekend wrote a ‘mock up’ for the committee, advocating fluoridation of milk rather than water. This had an immediate effect, the committee turned and rent us, the cuckoos being delighted at the opportunity of having a go at the president. Gradually Philip and I gave way and in the end we had an unanimous verdict for the water.

As PRCP I had the pleasure of admitting him to the fellowship and of pronouncing the formula ‘I wish you all happiness’. Knowing the state of his health at the time, this could have been ironical, but in fact he was entirely conditioned to his illness and carried on his work exactly as if nothing were wrong. We had an inviolable weekend programme — 4.30 to 7 pm on Saturday evening and 9.30 to 1 on Sundays. During these periods Philip would dictate drafts of papers at incredible speed, my wife acting as a secretary. It is of interest that in the last three years, when we were both working against the clock — he against his illness and I against presidential duties — we did more research and published more than at any other time.

I was with him a few hours before he died. He lucidly discussed the state of our various current research projects, and as we chatted I thought what an immense contribution he had made to medicine. Though doctors at first maddened him, he was so fascinated by our problems that he threw himself into medical research and showed us how to design experiments which would give an early answer, with the minimum risk to volunteers. In his last illness, although he was still critical of doctors as pure scientists, I know that secretly he was full of admiration for the way he was looked after, and for the Hippocratic tradition in action.

Sir Cyril Clarke

[, 1976, 2, 1140; Lancet, 1976, 2, 977; Times, 19 Oct 1976; Biogr, mem. roy. Soc., 1977, 23, 465-500]

(Volume VII, page 532)

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