Lives of the fellows

Ernest Basil Verney

b.22 August 1894 d.19 August 1967
BA Cantab(1916) MRCS LRCP(1918) MA MB BChir(1920) MRCP(1921) FRCP(1928) FRS(1936) MD(1961)

Basil Verney was born in Cardiff, the son of Frederick Palmer Verney, a farmer, by his wife Mary Anne Burch, the daughter of Joseph Burch, also a farmer. He was educated first at Judds School, Tonbridge, then at Tonbridge School from which he obtained an exhibition at Downing College, Cambridge, in 1913. In 1916 he gained a 1st Class Honours in the Nat. Sci. Tripos and entered St. Bartholomew’s Hospital with the Schuter Entrance Scholarship in anatomy and physiology. In 1918 he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and served as a regimental medical officer till his demobilisation in 1919. He immediately widened his medical knowledge by taking house physician posts, and by passing the MB BChir (Cantab) and the MRCP (London).

At this time he was better prepared for a career in clinical investigation, but he was doubtful if he had the right characteristics for such a life. He fortunately discussed his future with Professor E.H. Starling at University College, who offered him in 1921 a post as assistant in the Institute of Physiology. Attracted by Starling’s personality and by the chance of working in a very active department, he gladly accepted the post and from that time onward rapidly developed into an outstanding experimentalist. From 1922 to 1926 he held junior, 4th year and senior Beit Memorial Fellowships for Medical Research, and in 1926 he was appointed to the Chair of Pharmacology at University College. In 1930, his health broke down, largely as a result of long irregular hours of work. After two surgical operations he recovered sufficiently to return to his work without any apparent impairment in his research capacity. In 1934 he returned to Cambridge as the Shield Reader in Pharmacology and as a Fellow of Downing College. In 1946 he was appointed the first Shield Professor of Pharmacology. On his retirement in 1961 he was made an Emeritus Professor and an Honorary Fellow of his College. Vemey had been a Visiting Professor at the University of Melbourne in 1957, and after his retirement he was offered a personal Chair for three years in Melbourne which he gladly accepted and greatly enjoyed.

During his later medical training Verney had developed an interest in kidney function, and when he came under the influence of Starling it was only natural that he should first exploit the heart-lung-kidney preparation. In his first long series of experiments he showed that the pars nervosa of the pituitary gland held an antidiuretic hormone which regulated the output of water from the kidney, which was in turn regulated by the composition of the plasma reaching the hypothalamus. He next worked upon renal hypertension and showed that a brief bilateral occlusion of the renal arteries in dogs could lead to hypertension even in the almost totally sympathectomised animal, indicating that the active substance must act directly upon the blood vessels. Later he began working upon adrenal function. All the problems he chose required judgement, patience and surgical skill, and Verney had the innate ability for such work. He never undertook a problem without much thought and preparation. He was a first class surgeon and able to carry through very delicate operations with success. All the steps were planned and adherence to the plan was insisted upon. The results were written up with great care, clarity and precision. This was the severe and rigid side of his character which ensured that all his work was meticulous and the conclusions sound.

The interest and quality of his work brought him many honours. He was asked to give many special lectures such as the Croonian of the Royal Society, and the Bertram Lewis Abrahams of the College among many others. He was awarded the Baly Medal by the College. He was a good teacher, but he excelled in demonstrations in which the carrying out of the experiment made him more at ease with his audience than in set lectures. He expected research workers to make progress by their own efforts and he tended to withhold the help he could have given, as a matter of discipline. The severe and rigid part of his character was counter-balanced by an outstanding puckish sense of humour which ranged both over his work and his recreation. In point of fact, exercising his sense of humour was one of his chief recreations. All through his life he kept these two characteristics in elegant balance so that both his work and his sociability were maintained at a very high standard. His work brought him many honours, and his geniality, vivid imagination, and character brought him a wide circle of very real friends. It is difficult to decide what meant ¡the most to him, for he was a modest person by nature, of whom it can be truly said that he was not influenced by financial reward or worldly success. Work well done and friends well met gave him a complete satisfaction in life.

In 1923 Verney married Ruth Eden Conway, daughter of Robert Seymour Conway, Hulme Professor of Latin in Manchester University. They had three children, two boys and a girl, all of whom survived him.

Sir Alan Drury

[Biogr.Mem.Roy.Soc., 1970, 16, 523-542; Brit.med.J., 1967, 3, 621, 686; Lancet, 1967, 2, 518, 619; Times, 21 Aug 1967; Nature, 28 Oct 1967, 415]

(Volume VI, page 443)

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