Lives of the fellows

Charles Edward Gordon Smith

b.12 May 1924 d.4 August 1991
CB(1970) MB ChB St And(1947) MD(1956) MRCP(1965) FRCPath(1969) FRCP(1970) Hon DSc St And(1975)

Gordon Smith was dean of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine for nearly 20 years. For the preceeding six years, from 1964-70, he had been director of the Ministry of Defence germ warfare research establishment at Porton Down, Wiltshire, when he transformed it from an object of public suspicion to a more open and scientifically productive laboratory and was deeply involved with the United Nations in the drafting of the basis for later agreements on biological warfare. He was a specialist in tropical viruses, with a striking ability to handle a mixture of science, administration and politics. His outstanding critical ability was tempered by a strong sense of humour and although at times he might appear to be dogmatic he had a clear sense of justice and would support even those of whom he disapproved if he thought they were not being fairly represented.

He was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, the son of a manager of the Bank of Scotland, and educated at Forfar Academy, Forfar, going on to study medicine at St Andrews University and Dundee Royal Infirmary. After house posts at the Cumberland Infirmary, Carlisle, he entered the colonial medical service, first as a clinician and later as a research virologist at the Institute of Medical Research in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. In 1957 he returned to the UK to take up an appointment in the medical microbiology department of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine where he rapidly rose to a readership. His research had been on leptospirosis in the tropics but also on the tropical viruses transmitted by mosquitoes and other arthropods; this was the golden age of arbovirology. He was responsible for the very successful field epidemiological studies of virus encephalitis in Sarawak and also involved in attempts to determine the effects of irrigation on arboviruses in Kenya. In the UK he worked on louping ill - a tick borne disease of sheep related to the tick borne encephalitis viruses of man. He had a broad ecological approach to virology and it was appropriate that he was several times vice-president of the Zoological Society.

In 1970 the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine greatly needed a strong dean and Gordon Smith was the obvious choice. His ability to handle difficult problems was tested once again. Funding had become tight and he was faced with modernizing both the working and the structure of the school; the building was about to fall down and its inside was archaic - as was its academic structure. Added to this,at the beginning and end of his deanship there were two major mishaps concerning smallpox and during his tenure the financial pressures were very great so that only his prudent Scottish approach to financial rectitude kept the school solvent. Somehow he managed to cope with the crisis of the 1980s when UGC support for the school was suddenly halved and for most of the years that he was dean he had neither the funds available to previous deans nor the power of the dean of today. It is to his credit that the school not only survived but, particularly in its tropical work, flourished.

Gordon Smith was a conscientious and dedicated devotee of public health and tropical medicine. He acted as scientific adviser to the Wellcome Trust and was made a trustee in 1972, and deputy chairman from 1983 until his death. From 1972-89 he was chairman of the Public Health Laboratory Service Board, he conceived the idea of the Caribbean Epidemiological Centre, and as president to the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, 1975-77, he rescued the society from imminent bankruptcy. The World Health Organization turned to him to chair the research strengthening group of the special programme for research and training in tropical diseases and also asked him to carry out the external review of the huge multi-agency programme to rid West Africa of onchocerciasis: he learned to be fluent in French for this task and continued to read French detective stories thereafter.

In 1974, on the invitation of Sir Harold Himsworth (q.v.) he became a Freeman of the Goldsmiths Company. In a sense, he succeeded Sir Harold as scientific adviser to the Company in its medical charities activities. In May 1991 he became the prime warden.

He married Elsie McClellan in 1948 and they had three children, a son and two daughters. In their home they created an atmosphere of love, happiness and generous hospitality. Gordon enjoyed golf and gardening, and his love of Malaysia never waned. He had been reared among the Scottish golf courses and was a complete addict - but could never understand why his game did not improve. Sadly, his final illness restricted his interests since for many years he had suffered from Meniere’s disease and he had had a myocardial infarct.

V C Luniewska

[Brit.med.J., 1991,303,1197; The Times, 10 Aug 1991;The Independent, 9 Aug 1991]

(Volume IX, page 484)

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