Lives of the fellows

Reginald Lawson Waterfield

b.12 April 1900 d.10 June 1986
FRAS(1916) MRCS LRCP(1925) MB BS Lond(1932) MRCP(1933) FRCP(1955)

Reggie Waterfield, as he was known to all, was the son of a remarkable father, the Very Reverend Reginald Waterfield, Dean of Hereford Cathedral, who had been Chaplain to Queen Victoria’s Household, a master at Rugby School, and Headmaster of Cheltenham College. His charming and caring mother, Mary Lawson, was the daughter of a farmer. The Dean died in his hundredth year, a short while after his wife. Though different in many ways, Reggie and his father respected one another, and his mother was very supportive.

Reggie was educated at Temple Grove Preparatory School and Winchester College, and he graduated in medicine from Guy’s Hospital Medical School, University Of London. His interest in astronomy had started at the age of 10, when he was still at preparatory school and saw the daylight comet of 1910. In 1914, while at Winchester, he joined the British Astronomical Association. He had a special interest in comets, was a skilled photographer and took pictures of the principal eclipses in various parts of the world, as well as carrying out innovative astrometric work. His planetary observing books were a model and full of information, particularly on Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. He soon had an international reputation as an astronomer and the Royal Astronomical Society elected him a Fellow at the age of 16, while still at school. In 1942 they awarded him the Jackson-Gwilt Medal, and in 1966 the British Astronomical Association awarded him the Walter Goodacre Medal - their highest award. He was also the first recipient of a medal for work on comets awarded by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. He was later to become vice president of the Royal Astronomical Society, and president of the British Astronomical Association, having been director of its Mars section from 1931-42. He usually observed from Cheltenham, and would join the late Rev TER Phillips at his observatory in Headley, Surrey, where eventually Reggie himself went to live, building his own observatory.

On leaving school, during the first world war, Reggie joined the Army and saw service at the front before the end of hostilities. On demobilization he decided to study medicine and entered Guy’s Hospital medical school. After qualification he spent the next two years, 1927-29, as lecturer and assistant physician at the Johns Hopkins hospital, Baltimore, USA, returning to Guy’s as a medical registrar. Unfortunately he became ill and had to spend some time in Switzerland undergoing treatment for severe chronic thyroiditis. On recovery, he returned to Guy’s to work in general medicine, with an increasing interest in haematology. The advent of the second world war found him at first in the Emergency Medical Service carrying out valuable work with sector haematology, and in air-raid resuscitation at Guy’s. In 1941 he joined the RAMC, in the Army Blood Transfusion Service, and formed a blood supply base unit which operated in North Africa, advising and caring for the needs of the mobile field transfusion units under his command.

After the war Reggie returned once more to Guy’s and began to build up the department of haematology. His enthusiasm was infectious and the department soon produced outstanding detailed laboratory work. He was meticulous, precise and thorough, insisting on very high standards both for himself and for those who worked with him. Reggie was also extremely artistic and he produced beautiful illustrations and slides in order to demonstrate detailed morphology of the disorders he was investigating or demonstrating while teaching. He carried out much original work, and he owed a great deal to the excellent assistance given him by T H Newman, his chief technician, a fine laboratory organizer and trainer of technicians, and always a sound and much valued opinion in haematology, who is now retired with his wife and family near Vancouver, Canada.

In 1949 Reggie developed an unusual and severe form of poliomyelitis which left him a paraplegic. His determination to maintain as much independence as possible, aided by a fine brain and quick wit, enabled him to continue to pursue his career as a haematologist and as an astronomer. Despite his handicap, he continued his day to day diagnostic work and the teaching of undergraduates and technical and medical staff. He had already written papers on abnormal blood pigments, aspects of blood sedimentation in relation to anaemia, and changes in plasma proteins. He worked extensively on coagulation both in haemorrhagic disorders and thrombosis, and was able to organize a first class anticoagulant unit for the treatment of venous thrombosis, and acute and after care for coronary thrombosis.

An example of Reggie’s attention to detail in his search for perfection was his concern when he found that it was apparently impossible to draw out thin, smooth films for staining and microscopic examination. They were uneven, streaky, and on examination showed excessive red cell rouleaux formation. Further investigation showed raised fibrinogen content in the plasma proteins. He then noticed that increased blood sedimentation rate was also present and varied according to the degree of film streakiness. After this correlation of streaky films to blood sedimentation rate a Waterfield report on a blood picture often included ‘streaky films indicating a high ESR’. A useful pointer to the presence of infections, or perhaps malignancy, and many a keen student who learned to make good slides through Reggie’s tuition scored marks by following up ‘streaky film’ appearance with an ESR estimation.

Reggie was greatly interested in red cell measurements, where he found many similarities to photography in astronomy. He built the Waterfield Halometer, an accurate machine for determining red cell diameter. The Halometer was of great value in differentiating macrocytic, microcytic or normocytic anaemia, and was particularly useful in early diagnosis of pernicious anaemia. A more sophisticated Waterfield Spherocytometer was developed which added cell thickness and diameter thickness ratios, greatly facilitating investigation into haemolytic anaemia. He followed this branch of research, and for two years after his retirement Guy’s granted him laboratory space to complete his work. Automated cell counting machines may have superseded his lovely instruments with the advent of large scale haematology, but in many ways they are based on Reggie’s early work.

During his distinguished career in haematology, Reggie continued his work in astronomy and more detailed information about his achievements in this field can be obtained from the Royal Astronomical Society.

Always elegant in dress and manner, when away from work Reggie was excellent company. He enjoyed playing darts, over a beer, with students and colleagues, and he excelled in off-board play; very amusing for all, except the unfortunate marker at risk from the straying dart. He was a splendid raconteur with delightful stories; perhaps of his yearly visit to the Hobby Horse Fair at Padstow in Cornwall, where his many friends, from dukes to dustmen, would wheel him precariously from one place of entertainment to another; or of the time when he entertained a famous visiting professor of medicine and his wife to dinner at the Athenaeum Ladies Section. The dinner was splendid in all respects, but when leaning forward in the drawing-room afterwards Reggie became unbalanced in his chair, sending the coffee and liqueur trolley hurtling to the other side of the room, passing bishops and their ladies, and other guests. After apologising profusely came the cry ‘Oh, my God, I hope they won’t tell the Lord or my father.’

Reggie was a very fine pianist, with a love of Bach and Beethoven, and enjoyed playing to friends. He often said, with pride, that after suitable priming he was persuaded to accompany Einstein, a very good violinist, for a short recital. His modest comment was ‘Surprisingly, it seemed to go very well.’

Reggie Waterfield never married, but after his parents’ death he enjoyed the help and companionship of his widowed sister, Patsy, who survived him. On retirement, Reggie returned to Somerset, where he set up his observatory with an electrically operated roof. He remained there for the rest of his life. Many friends came to see him; some were visiting astronomers who observed with him and during the winter of 1985 he viewed with delight Hailey’s comet, which he had first seen in 1910. He continued to work in his observatory until shortly before his death.

Reggie Waterfield was a unique and talented man who, in spite of severe physical handicaps, ran an excellent department of haematology while producing a wealth of new and important knowledge. He brought inspiration to many, and will be remembered and missed by all who knew him. He was indeed a remarkable genius.


[The Times, 21 June,2 July 1986;, 1986,293,214,397; Lancet, 1986,2,114; Guy's Hosp. Gaz., January 1987]

(Volume VIII, page 523)

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