Lives of the fellows

Hubert Maitland Turnbull

b.3 March 1875 d.29 September 1955
BA Oxon(1898) MA Oxon(1902) BM BCh Oxon(1902) DM Oxon(1906) Hon DSc Oxon(1945) MRCS LRCP(1902) MRCP(1924) FRCP(1929) FRS(1939)

Hubert Turnbull was born in Glasgow where his father, Andrew Hugh Turnbull, was manager and actuary of the City of Glasgow Life Assurance Company. His mother, Margaret Lothian, was the daughter of Adam Black, founder of the publishing firm of Adam and Charles Black, lord provost of Edinburgh (1843-8), and M.P. for the city of Edinburgh (1856-65).

He was educated at St. Ninians, Moffat (1884), Charterhouse (1888-94), and Oxford (Magdalen College). He proceeded to the degree of B.A. in 1898 and was awarded the Hugh Russell Welsh prize in anatomy in 1899. In 1900 he obtained the Price university entrance scholarship at the London Hospital and qualified in 1902.

As a post-graduate he held house appointments at the London Hospital from February to June 1903, when his work was interrupted by illness. In November of that year he returned to work in the Institute of Pathology of the London Hospital until July 1904, when he left to study at Copenhagen and Dresden as Radcliffe travelling fellow. At Dresden he was voluntary assistant to Professor Georg Schmorl and this determined his choice of pathology as his life’s work.

From November 1906 until September 1946 he acted as director of the Institute of Pathology at the London Hospital, receiving the titles of reader in morbid anatomy in London University in 1915, professor in 1919, and professor emeritus in 1947. From 1913 to 1916 he acted as examiner in pathology at Oxford University.

Turnbull’s great achievement was the building-up of a department in which meticulous care and accuracy were directed to the observation and recording of biopsies and necropsies. By this means he sought to make pathology truly scientific. His teaching was based upon his own experience; if this ran counter to the textbooks it was simply that he was in advance of his times. For example, he taught that the so-called mediastinal sarcoma was in fact carcinoma of the bronchus at least six years before his pupil, W. G. Barnard, published this new interpretation (J. Path. Bact., 1926, 29, 241-4).

Much of Turnbull's work appeared in the journals under his pupils’ names. He himself was a reluctant writer, his craving for perfection being a perpetual inhibition. Nevertheless he wrote some eighty-six articles and rapidly acquired an impressive reputation at home and abroad; the Institute had a full quota of voluntary assistants who came to learn his methods. These and the young graduates who later took pathology appointments elsewhere or became clinical consultants at the London Hospital absorbed his ideals and passion for truth.

Turnbull's special interest lay in the pathology of the bones, but there were few tissues of the body that he did not study closely, as is shown in his published reports. His observations on postvaccinal encephalomyelitis, often called Turnbull's disease on the Continent (Brit. J. exp. Path., 1926, 7, 181-222), preceded those of Bastiaanse, but their early publication was prohibited at the time by the Ministry of Health.

His life-long suffering from migraine made Turnbull somewhat of a recluse; it was the cause of his refusal to deliver important public lectures, and he was reluctant to attend meetings. This and his natural austerity and reserve led to his being better known by name than in person, though his visitors’ book testified to numerous callers who were always warmly welcomed. Those who worked with him found a depth of altruism and human understanding; he spent much time in organising relief measures for colleagues who were in difficulties.

In 1897 Turnbull played association football for Oxford against Cambridge, and for the United Universities against London. He was a keen bird-watcher all his life, and a devotee of golf and angling. He was a skilled draughtsman and took much pleasure in making water-colour sketches. Geology was another hobby; he kept a petrological microscope in his laboratory and, in the autumn, the pungent fumes of hot canada balsam pouring from his room would betray that he was preparing rocks for examination.

On February 12, 1916 he married Catherine Nairne Arnold, younger daughter of Frederick Arnold Baker. They had one daughter and three sons, the youngest of whom, Adam Lothian Turnbull, qualified in medicine and became a Member of the College in 1952.

At his belated retirement, at seventy-one, Turnbull was already a sick man. The succeeding nine years, spent at his home in Woking, were punctuated by a series of illnesses, and his death took place at the London Hospital.

Richard R Trail

[Biogr.Mem.Roy.Soc., 1957, 3, 289-304 (p), bibl.; Brit.med.J., 1955, 2, 913-14 (p); Lancet, 1955, 2, 778-80 (p).]

(Volume V, page 425)

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