Lives of the fellows

Herbert Spencer

b.8 February 1915 d.1 June 1993
MB BS Lond(1937) MD(1940) FRCS(1940) DTM&H(1948) PhD(1954) MRCP(1962) FRCPath(1963) FRCP(1971)

Herbert Spencer was born and lived most of his life in Barnet, Hertfordshire. The son of Hubert John Spencer, a manufacturing furrier, and his wife Edith Maud née Lodge, he was educated at Highgate School and St Mary’s Hospital, London. It was here that he met his future wife, Eileen Morgan, and they were married in 1940. After qualification he initially started training in surgery, obtaining his FRCS, before embarking on a career in pathology. After only 18 months in pathology at Park Prewett Hospital, Basingstoke, he was called up into the Army where he was graded as a specialist in both surgery and pathology. From 1942-46 he served in the Middle East, including Iran, Iraq and Egypt, finally being appointed assistant director of pathology MEF and officer in charge of the central laboratory, Cairo, with the rank of lieutenant colonel. On leaving the Army he was appointed assistant pathologist to the central histological laboratory, Archway Hospital. From here he made visits to other hospitals of the former London County Council, including those in Lambeth with which he was to be closely associated in later years.

At this stage he made a decision to pursue a career in academic pathology and in 1950 he was appointed lecturer in pathology at St Thomas Hospital medical school, where he was to remain until his retirement in 1980 - rising from the rank of reader (1954) to professor (1965). His Army experience had given him an interest in parasitology and tropical pathology which he developed alongside his interest in pulmonary pathology. In 1961 he was appointed visiting associate professor at Yale University where he worked with Averill Liebow, the doyen of pulmonary pathology. The first edition of Spencer’s book Pathology of the lung, Oxford, Pergamon Press, was published in 1962. Herbert Spencer had a gift for writing and his easy style, clear description and encyclopaedic knowledge, soon made his textbook a standard work subsequently running to many reprints and four editions.

Within his department at St Thomas’ he formed a geographical pathology unit and from there, with Michael Hutt who had recently returned from Uganda, and under the auspices of the Overseas Development Administration, he provided a remarkable postal pathology service for hospitals in Malawi which survived throughout the decade before his retirement. His second textbook Tropical pathology, Berlin & New York, Springer-Verlag, was published in 1973.

Herbert Spencer was a practical man and he obtained great pleasure from his work as a diagnostic histopathologist, a morbid anatomist and a teacher. His diagnostic ability was reflected in his large referral practice. His collection of histopathological exotica was a valuable reference source for visiting pathologists and a challenge for his academic staff during his weekly slide seminars. He was an outstanding teacher both as a lecturer and as a postmortem demonstrator. He took it upon himself to give the majority of the lectures and demonstrations to medical students, especially during his years as a lecturer at St Thomas’, when the head of the department at that time, W G Barnard [Munk's Roll, Vol.V, p.27], had other responsibilities as dean of the medical school and treasurer of the college. His love of his subject was such that when he retired he returned to St Mary’s Hospital to assist with the diagnostic pathology service and teaching. He also joined a panel at the Royal College of Surgeons to provide expert second opinion on difficult histological sections.

Although he enjoyed teaching, Herbert was essentially a shy man and did not participate actively in hospital or medical school affairs outside his department. He was a founder fellow of the Royal College of Pathologists but chose not to become involved in medical politics nor to play an active role in the college. He travelled extensively overseas and made many friends who were frequent visitors to his department.

Herbert and Eileen had four children, three daughters and a son. He was devoted to his family and, like them, was a devout Christian.

J R Tighe

[Brit.med.J., 1993,307,378; Times, 1 July 1993; The Independent, 17 July 1993;The Daily Telegraph, 28 June 1993; St Thomas' Hosp.Gaz, Winter 1980,78,no.3,110-111;Summer 1968,66,no.2]

(Volume IX, page 497)

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