Lives of the fellows

Alfred Gordon Heppleston

b.29 August 1915 d.27 January 1998
MB ChB Manch(1938) MRCP(1941) MD(1954) DSc(1964) FRCP(1967) FRCPath(1963)

Alfred Gordon Heppleston was professor of pathology at the University of Newcastle from 1960 to 1977. He was born in Crew Green, a small village just east of Crewe in Cheshire. The son of the local schoolmaster, he attended Manchester Grammar School as a foundation scholar and qualified MB ChB at Manchester University in 1938.

After a house physician post at the Manchester Royal Infirmary, he became chief assistant to the professor of medicine. Whilst holding this post, he also became, with a small honorarium, demonstrator and junior histologist in the department of pathology. In 1942, he married Eleanor (Nan) Rix Tebbutt, and, with no advancement in medicine on the cards, and following rejection for military service on medical grounds, he accepted the post of assistant bacteriologist at Manchester Royal Infirmary. But he found the work tedious, so in 1944, he applied for, and obtained the post of assistant lecturer in pathology at Cardiff. It was here that he began his investigations into lung diseases, which were to continue unabated for almost fifty years.

His interest in experimental work was greatly stimulated by a year at the University of Pennsylvania, from 1947 to 1948, as the MRC’s Dorothy Temple Cross research fellow. This resulted in several publications on experimental pulmonary tuberculosis. On his return to Cardiff he was promoted to senior lecturer in the University of Wales and consultant pathologist to the United Cardiff Hospitals.

His family and professional life were severely interrupted when he developed pulmonary tuberculosis in 1950. He was in virtual isolation for 16 months, most of the time in a sanatorium, a period of painful separation for his wife, Nan, and their two small boys. Streptomycin had recently become available and his physical recovery was complete. Gordon appears to have borne the period of tedium and isolation with remarkable patience, and, as a keen ornithologist, was delighted to spend the final two months of convalescence at a lonely bird observatory on the Northumberland coast.

In 1960 he was appointed professor of pathology at the University of Durham at Newcastle upon Tyne (soon to become the University of Newcastle upon Tyne), where he was faced with considerable organizational difficulties in the early years. With the exception of biochemistry, research output had not been high and he felt training in research methodology was insufficiently organized. It was several years before the department assumed the shape he wanted. By then a good many academic staff were of his own choosing. Research developed significantly, with academic staff of high quality joining the department, and a constant intake of science graduates working on PhDs. Two senior lecturers obtained chairs elsewhere, successes which gave him much satisfaction.

Cell kinetics of a number of organs became a major feature of the work of the department. Gordon’s personal work on lung disorders prospered, though he never revisited pulmonary tuberculosis. Whilst in Cardiff he had worked on the pathology and pathogenesis of simple pneumoconiosis and on pulmonary fibrosis and emphysema, and made some observations on silicosis and the disposal in the lung of coal and haematite dust. Studies of fibrosis and emphysema continued in Newcastle, where experimental observations on silicosis became a major interest. He investigated the cellular responses of the different lung cells to silica, the production of alveolar lipo-proteinosis, and the mechanisms of lung fibrosis. He undertook an important epidemiological and pathological study of asbestosis and mesothelioma on Tyneside, leading to experimental observations on tissue response to differing quantities and sizes of asbestos particles. During this period he also studied cell kinetics within the mouse lung at different ages, the cellular response to hyperbaric oxygen, and the cell kinetics of urethane-induced murine pulmonary adenomata. In the later years, the effects of inhaled plutonium-239 on induced adenomata were added. These studies brought him national and international recognition, and invitations to speak in many parts of the world, particularly to Europe and Scandinavia, but also in North America and South Africa.

But work in Newcastle never appeared to give him the pleasure his position and success deserved. He enjoyed his personal research and the teaching of junior staff and PhD students, and had a strong interest in other scientific fields, but found his administrative duties in the department and his committee work in the University tedious and unproductive. Lecture preparation and paper writing were prolonged and difficult exercises, involving much revision and considerable anxiety. Morality and ethics were serious matters to him and he felt they played too small a part in academic life. Small talk and the trivia of drinks parties were uncongenial and were avoided whenever possible, as was anything which interfered with the regular and disciplined daily existence he desired. Inevitably he made no close friendships in the University and the inability to share difficult issues with others added to the burdens of the job. He was aware of the disadvantages of such attitudes and felt a degree of guilt that he could not be more flexible and accommodating.

The opportunity for early retirement was taken with alacrity, particularly as he knew he could continue working on pneumoconiosis at the Institute of Occupational Medicine at Edinburgh, in his own time and at his own convenience. He never regretted the decision to retire early and, indeed, seems to have achieved a life which provided all he could ever have wanted. Within a year the Hepplestons moved to a house in Northumberland. The house was some 300 feet above the North Tyne river, surrounded by garden and trees, and with magnificent views of hills and moorland. There, they participated in local societies, made friends, and found great pleasure in the endless walking and prolific bird and wild life.

The research job in Edinburgh was a great success and lasted for 15 years. Mostly he continued to work on silicosis and asbestosis, producing 17 papers on these topics. He also wrote four long book chapters covering many aspects of respiratory disease on which he had actively worked for more than half his life. He achieved the rare satisfaction of completing the scientific studies and writing he wished to do.

But, perhaps above all else, retirement, with the opportunity to read and meditate, an occupation loved by Nan, whose capacity for lonely contemplation Gordon much admired, allowed him to develop his Christian beliefs. In the last few years his physical strength and activity progressively diminished, and his contentment became more and more dependent on reading and meditation and the companionship of Nan. He was immensely proud of his sons, Paul, a biologist and fellow ornithologist, and Andrew, a consultant haematologist, who both helped them as often as possible as their infirmities increased. In 1995, Nan developed secondaries from a malignant tumour removed some years previously. This was a time of great sadness for Gordon and her death removed most of his purpose for living. From then on he looked forward to joining her and quietly did so 18 months later.

Bernard Tomlinson

[Brit.med.J.,1998,317,1159; Royal College of Pathologists Bulletin, 1999,105,23]

(Volume XI, page 262)

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