Lives of the fellows

Hugh Macdonald Sinclair

b.4 February 1910 d.22 June 1990
MA BSc BM BCh Oxon(1936) LMSSA Lond(1936) DM Oxon(1939) MRCP(1953) FRCP(1964)

Hugh Sinclair’s place in the history of medicine will depend on whether his hypothesis that essential fatty acid deficiency is widespread in western society and that it is an important cause of coronary thrombosis, and possibly of lung cancer and other diseases, is substantiated. When he died 34 years after he had first postulated it in a famous letter to The Lancet, 1956,1:381-383, although it had many enthusiastic supporters, critical scientists remained unconvinced of its validity.

Hugh’s family was distinguished. He was a direct descendant of Sir John Sinclair whose Statistical account of Scotland, 1826, is a major source of Scottish social history. His cousin Sir Archibald Sinclair, the Liberal leader, was a member of Churchill’s wartime coalition government. His father, Hugh Montgomery Sinclair, CB CMG CBE, was a soldier who was serving in Scotland when Hugh was born in Duddingston House, just outside Edinburgh. His maternal grandfather, Sir John Jackson MP LLD FRS, was a successful civil engineer. Hugh inherited the wealth that enabled him to acquire as a young man a library of rare medical books, most of which he sold in 1966 for £90,000.

From Winchester College, he went to Oriel College, Oxford, and then to University College Hospital where he qualified in 1936. There were many distinguished men on the teaching staff in the laboratories in Oxford and in the wards in UCH at that time. Hugh had the capacity to get to know them and pick their brains, and also to read widely in libraries. He was a brilliant student and his undergraduate honours included a first class in physiology, the Gotch prize, the Rolleston prize, the Radcliffe scholarship in pharmacology, and gold and silver medals in clinical medicine.

In 1937 he returned to Oxford as fellow and tutor at Magdalen College and university lecturer in biochemistry. By then his widowed mother had bought a large country house and garden in the village of Sutton Courtenay near Oxford, where he lived and entertained in style. He never married and it remained his home for the rest of his life. He decided to make his career in the study of human nutrition and its relation to diseases of civilization. He was first drawn to this by reading William Farr’s book Vital statistics, and later, while he was still an undergraduate, by assisting Sir Rudolph Peters [Munk's Roll,Vol.VII,p.460] in pioneer experiments on thiamine metabolism.

During the war he was director of the Oxford Nutrition Survey which had a staff of up to 25 members and carried out surveys in Britain, and later in The Netherlands and occupied Germany. It is difficult to assess its work as no reports were published, but Hugh was made an officer of the Order of Orange-Nassau by the Dutch and given, by the Americans, the Medal of Freedom with silver palms for the work in Germany - where he had been an honorary consultant to the Control Commission with the rank of brigadier. In 1947 the survey was reconstituted at Oxford as the Laboratory of Human Nutrition, and Hugh was made a reader in human nutrition by the university in 1951.

Disaster struck in 1958 when the university closed the laboratory and did not re-elect Hugh to the readership. This has been attributed by his friends to the machinations of the Oxford medical establishment. The laboratory had had a chequered life, first in Nissan huts and later in a private house in the science area. There had been continual differences between Hugh and the university and for this reason its administration had been transferred to the department of biochemistry. Here his troubles continued, and it was Hugh’s inability to cooperate with the department’s administration that led Sir Hans Krebs [Munk's Roll, Vol.VII, p.325] to recommend its final closure. Furthermore, during the 11 years of its existence only one solid paper (V Ramalingaswami and H M Sinclair, Brit. J. Derma tol.,1953, 65:1-22) had been produced, although there had been numerous contributions to conferences and proceedings of societies. The 1956 letter to The Lancet would have been seen then, as now, only as a hypothesis.

The loss of his university post and his laboratory did not mean the end of Hugh’s Oxford career. He continued as a successful tutor in physiology at Magdalen College. Many now distinguished doctors have expressed their gratitude to Hugh for introducing them in tutorials to the fascination of the medical sciences. He was for a time vice-president of Magdalen.

After leaving the biochemistry department he set up, in his home in Sutton Courtenay, the International Nutrition Foundation and maintained it until his death. Its flamboyant title and notepaper concealed the fact that it consisted only of a small laboratory, which produced no significant research, the residue of his historical library, and an invaluable large collection of reprints, most on nutritional subjects.

Hugh was a frequent attender at meetings of scientific societies and international conferences, where his witty conversation and wide learning got him many invitations to lecture, and he gave named lectures at three prestigious American universities. He was also asked to contribute to or edit many books. Of these, the one that is sure of a place in any good medical library is The work of Sir Robert McCarrison, ed H M Sinclair, London, Faber & Faber, 1953. Hugh became a friend of McCarrison in 1935, when Sir Robert retired from India and settled in Oxford. McCarrison had been a prolific laboratory worker and his many papers were scattered in different journals. Hugh expertly selected extracts from these, added comments on them by himself and others, and so produced a fine book. McCarrison and Hugh were each eloquent exponents of the view that national diets have a major part in determining the health of a country and the prevalence of diseases. The McCarrison Society was founded to study the relation between nutrition and health. Hugh was an active member and president at the time of his death.

From 1954 to 1961 he was honorary treasurer of the Physiological Society; during a time of considerable difficulties he looked after the Society’s finances and was responsible for putting them on a sound footing.

Hugh Sinclair was a big, genial, untidy man who always appeared at scientific meetings wearing an Old Wykhamist tie and well worn clothes, typical of an undergraduate of the 1930s. He had received trials for the Oxford football team and was a playing member of the MCC. He was also an enthusiastic member of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, where he used to turn up for dinner in an extremely ancient white-tie and tails. He was Master from 1967-68.

Many of his large number of friends were grateful for his hospitality both at Magdalen and at Sutton Courtenay and they will miss the light verse they received every Christmas. Hugh was a witty, learned eccentric who would have felt more at home in the Scotland of his ancestors in the eighteenth century than in the age in which he lived.

R Passmore

[Brit.med.J., 1990,301,177; The Times, 28 June 1990 The Independent, 27 June 1990; The Guardian, 27 June 1990; The Daily Telegraph, 27 June 1990; The Times, 23 Feb 1966]

(Volume IX, page 474)

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