Lives of the fellows

Alan Waller Woodruff

b.27 June 1916 d.12 October 1992
CMG(1978) OBE(1989) MB BS Durh(1939) MD(1941) MRCP(1945) DTM&H(1946) PhD Lond(1952) FRCP(1953)

Alan Woodruff was the son of William Henry Woodruff, naval architect and part-time lecturer at Sunderland Technical College, and his wife Mary Margaret, née Thomson, daughter of a marine engineer. Born in Sunderland, he was educated at Hawley’s, Bede Collegiate School and Durham University, where he studied medicine. His clinicals were undertaken at Newcastle Royal Infirmary. He became house surgeon to J Hamilton Barclay and house physician to Horsley Drummond. From 1940-46 he served in the RAFVR, latterly as medical specialist and squadron-leader, and his postings included India and Burma. On demobilization he returned to Newcastle as registrar to F J Nattrass [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.421] and C C Ungley [Munk’s Roll,Vol.V, p.427]. In 1948 he was appointed senior lecturer in clinical tropical medicine, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and first assistant at the Hospital for Tropical Diseases. Following the retirement of Neil Hamilton Fairley [Munks Roll, Vol.VI, p.171], later Sir Neil, and the premature death of his successor F Murgatroyd [Munk's Roll, Vol.V, p.299] Woodruff was appointed to the Wellcome chair of clinical tropical medicine in 1952; he retained this post until his retirement in 1971.

Woodruff was appointed to this senior academic post at a very early age and it was therefore not surprising that he was not at once accepted with enthusiasm by the well established physicians at University College Hospital, who had been linked with their colleagues at the Hospital for Tropical Diseases since 1951. Woodruff maintained an office and laboratory at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine but as a committed clinician he worked mostly at the Hospital. He continuously emphasized the importance of the clinical discipline in the public health (hygiene) environment of the LSHTM and became something of a proselytiser for this cause.

Clinically, Woodruff was slow, deliberate and meticulous. To some he could present an awesome and dominant presence. His ward rounds took place in the grand manner: this tall, thin, bespectacled (‘half-moons’) professor in a white coat dominated the proceedings. His clinical skills were highly regarded and he was frequently consulted by patients from all over the world, including heads of State. He was the first to diagnose the frequently fatal disease ‘Lassa fever* in this country.

His initial research interest was in tropical sprue. He subsequently became interested in anaemias of pregnancy and protein malnutritions, which formed the substance of his Goulstonian lectures in 1954. Early papers described helminthic infections, notably onchocerciasis. In 1961 J C C Bucklet diagnosed ocular toxocara canis infection, histologically, in a 5-year old child at the HTD. This infection, contracted by accidental ingestion of canine faeces, was to dominate his department’s research for two decades; his Watson-Smith lecture in 1970 was devoted to the disease. Determination of the concentration of larvae of this nematode in soil samples, collected in many parts of Britain and abroad, was the department’s major interest; his Indian technician’s time was also dominated by the disease. Newly arrived postgraduate students were sent to various locations, notably public parks, to collect soil samples. Woodruff maintained, in many articles and radio/television reviews, that dogs should be banned from public parks, or alternatively licence fees should be raised to finance provision of dog wardens.

In 1962 he described (jointly) four cases of blackwater fever managed by haemodialysis. In 1968, he described a case of cerebral malaria treated with dexamethasone in addition to anti-plasmodial agents. Both were recorded in the British Medical Journal. Other topics, notably tropical splenomegaly, were subjects of subsequent researches. Throughout his career, Woodruff travelled widely; he was frequently away from London lecturing or examining in an overseas university/medical school, these included Egypt, Turkey, Uganda,Sudan and Libya.

Alan Woodruff was an honorary consultant to the Army, 1956-81 and to British Airways, 1962-89. He was either chairman or member of committees which focused on haemoglobin variants (MRC), travellers’ diarrhoea (MRC), onchocerciasis (WHO), resistance of malarial parasites to chemotherapy (WHO) and also the Codex Revision committee of the Pharmaceutical Society. He was a member of the MRC’s tropical medicine research board. He served on the council of the British Burma Society and the African council for medical research.

The day after retirement from the LSHTM, Woodruff departed for Juba University, southern Sudan. During the next decade, as professor of medicine, he set about the development of a medical school in an old military hospital. Despite seemingly insurmountable difficulties, he persisted with the training of Sudanese undergraduates. He also recorded patterns of infant disease in an urban community. Several years later Woodruff, with his students, reluctantly moved to Khartoum at the request of the Sudanese government who were concerned for his safety. He remained there, continuing to examine in several northern African universities, until the summer of 1992.

His sudden death, probably caused by a cerebrovascular accident, occurred in Khartoum to which he had returned briefly in order to lecture. He had been teaching students the day before his death. From a humanitarian point of view, the work he so devotedly carried out during and after his formal retirement was a remarkable contribution.

Woodruff undoubtedly considered himself a ‘society man’; his mildly aloof presence and characteristic chuckle were familiar to numerous gatherings - and also at the Athenaeum where he spent many a leisure hour. He became president of the Durham University Society, 1962-73; of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, 1973-75 (he was later an honorary fellow); of the Medical Society of London, 1975-76, and of the history section of the Royal Society of Medicine, 1977-79. He was an honorary fellow of the Burman Medical Association; the Société de Pathologie Exotique, Paris; the Brazilian Society of Tropical Medicine; the Canadian Society of Tropical Medicine and International Health.

Alan Woodruff’s major hobby was wood carving and engraving and he was elected an honorary fellow of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers & Engravers. He was also a keen astronomer, who built his own telescopes, and a photographer. He considered himself a ‘holiday fisherman’. In his early years he had been an accomplished tennis player, having represented the University of Durham in 1938, and he returned to this sport in Khartoum. Amongst other interests were Charles Darwin’s illness, Thomas Bewick's engravings and the influence of J M W Turner's psychiatric status on his paintings.

In 1946 he married Mercia Helen, daughter of Leonard Frederick Arnold, who was a nursing sister in the RAF. They had three children, a daughter and two sons. One son followed his father into medicine.

G C Cook

[The Independent, 24 Oct 1992; The Times, 20 Oct & 7 Nov 1992;The Daily Telegraph, 28 Oct 1992; The Guardian, 24 Oct & 19 Nov 1992; The Lancet, 1992,340,1090,Proc.roy.Coll.Physns.Edin., v.23,no.2 (April 1993)]

(Volume IX, page 602)

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