Lives of the fellows

Sydney William Stanbury

b.21 April 1919 d.29 February 1996
MB ChB Manch(1942) MRCP(1947) MD(1958) FRCP(1958)

In the few years after the Second World War Lord Platt [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.470) collected future nephrologists as others collect stamps. Of his entire Manchester collection, none showed greater promise than Bill Stanbury (as we all called him). He gave an instant impression of luminous intelligence and RP recruited him to the unit on sight, which was something he rarely did, though he would of course have known of his undergraduate career, with distinction in every subject, culminating in graduation with first class honours.

He entered Manchester University Medical School from Hulme Grammar School, Oldham, but his forebears came from Cornwall. In leisure and during retirement he was to return there for peace and recreation in his boat and garden. During his service in the RAMC in India and Burma he spent a period of leave in Sikkim, an experience which established or confirmed a great love of the natural world. Both at his northern home of Hey Tor in Hale and at Halamana at Gillan on the Lizard peninsula he created notable gardens.

It is, however, for his contribution to investigative and clinical medicine in Manchester that he will be longest and best remembered. Junior posts were interrupted by his war service, but after joining the department of medicine, initially as a registrar, his progress was uniform and rapid. As his research capabilities became manifest, he was awarded a Beit memorial research fellowship which he held from 1948 to 1951. He spent a year between 1951 and 1952 as a Rockefeller travelling fellow, working with Bert Mudge and John Taggart in Robert Loeb’s [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.298] department of medicine in the Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, New York. Although he showed no evidence of any Presbyterian influence as such, he remained on friendly terms with Loeb, Mudge, Taggart, Bradley and other colleagues there. With his growing international reputation, he returned on occasion to North America as a visiting professor or named lecturer, to Boston, Dallas, Kingston, Washington and the Mayo Clinic.

These were excursions. The solid base of his reputation lay in the clinical and biochemical investigation, over a period of nearly forty years, of the large group of patients, first with hypertension, later with renal disease of all varieties, who attended the unit in which he worked. These forty years included his period as professor of medicine from 1965 to 1984. He participated in the follow up of patients with hypertension treated with lumbar sympathectomy which led Robert Platt to discount this form of treatment, a view not disproved but rendered irrelevant with the advent of effective hypotensive medicines. More important were his own observations on the syndrome of renal tubular dysfunction, including potassium-losing nephropathy.

His most important series of observations arose from his interest in the bony complications of renal disease. At a time when Dent, Fourman and Nordin were also active in study and debate (sometimes keen and not always fully evidence-based) Stanbury could hold his own in the Bone and Tooth Society, sometimes misnamed the Tooth and Claw Society by neutral observers. He was the acknowledged leader, but he built up a team with biochemists (Geoffrey Lumb and Barbara Mawer), other clinicians like Peter Adams and a most important longstanding collaboration with John Ball, who perfected the study of bony sections from which calcium had not been leached. To an extent he unravelled the respective roles of osteomalacia (renal rickets), osteoporosis, and overactive parathyroid glands in producing bone disease. With others he was able to demonstrate the value of controlled treatment with calciferol, both for the bony lesions of osteomalacia and for the accompanying muscle weakness. His most notable contribution to management was to show the effectiveness of parathyroidectomy in those patients in whom parathyroid activity had become excessive and autonomous. In 1981 the award of the Lumleian lectureship gave him the opportunity to present a resume of his work on renal bone disease to the College.

As a commentator of his results and views Stanbury had all the virtues, and perhaps one fault. All his contributions were meticulously prepared, and delivered with the utmost clarity and enthusiasm. It was this last quality which could occasionally lead to indifference to the relentless progress of the clock, so that an audience, initially rapt, could stumble into impatience. But the heart of the matter was always there and he was inspirational in both undergraduate and postgraduate teaching. To the discerning he was immensely persuasive and it was his dynamism which persuaded the Wellcome Trust to build the metabolic ward at the Manchester Royal Infirmary, of which he became director in 1963.

He was a tremendously hard worker, both in the wards and at the bench. To those who only saw and heard him at meetings, he might have appeared narrowly focused, but those who worked with him knew the breadth of knowledge and the intensity of dedication which he brought to his clinical commitments. The standards which he demanded of himself he also expected of others and when that expectation was disappointed, he was capable of making his views clear. In other words, to work with him and for him was a salutary discipline and an excellent all-round experience.

He was superficially grudging of time devoted to social engagements - but when you got him there (as his wife Helen was expert at doing), he was splendid company. His family life was happy and important to him. He married Helen Jackson in 1943 and they had four daughters and a son.

Sir Douglas Black

[Brit.med.J., 1996,312,906]

(Volume X, page 465)

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