Lives of the fellows

John Smith Knox (Sir) Boyd

b.18 September 1891 d.10 June 1981
OBE(Mil 1942) KHP(1944 - 46) Kt(1958) MB ChB Glasg(1913) MD(1948) MRCP(1950) FRCP(1951) FRS(1951) Hon LLD Glasg(1957) Hon FRCP Edin(1960) Hon FRSM(1965) Hon FRCPath(1968) Hon DSc Salford(1969)

The Boyds are an ancient lowland clan and John was very proud of his Scottish ancestry. He was born at Largs in Ayrshire, where his father was an agent at the Royal Bank of Scotland. He left the local school in 1908 and, with the aid of a grant from the Carnegie Trust (which he repaid with his first earnings) went to Glasgow University to study medicine. He graduated with honours in April 1913, receiving the John Paterson bursary and the Brunton memorial prize as the most distinguished graduate of the year.

Boyd served as house surgeon to the cardiologist John Cowan and then went as ship’s surgeon on a voyage to Rangoon. On his return in the summer of 1914, war was declared; John applied for a commission in the RAMC, was called up in October and went straight to the Ypres salient with a Field Ambulance of the 27th Division. In May 1915, the 27th, reduced in numbers from 20,000 to 4,000 men, was transferred to Armentières, the Somme, and finally to Salonika, where John became MO to the Engineers and trekked widely through Macedonia. He had to tackle severe epidemics of dysentery and malaria, acquired a deep interest in tropical medicine and applied for a regular commission in the RAMC.

In 1920 he went to India, working in pathology laboratories in Nasirabad and Mhow. From 1923 to 1929 he taught pathology at the RAM College in Millbank and then, in the rank of major returned to India where he was in charge of laboratories in Bangalore and Poona. He made a detailed study of bacillary dysentery, reclassified the causative organisms, described new strains and settled the laboratory diagnosis. He loved India and its peoples, and travelled widely.

In 1936 he returned to Millbank and was put in charge of vaccine production. He set about preparing enough TAB vaccine for the protection of British troops in the shadow of war. He also worked with the Wellcome organization in the development and use of tetanus toxoid and, through his efforts, tetanus was not a problem for the British Army in World War II. In 1940, in the rank of colonel, he went to the Middle East as deputy director of pathology, organized the service there, and collaborated with Sir Neil Hamilton Fairley in the control of malaria. With GAH Buttle, he introduced sulphaguanidine for the treatment of bacillary dysentery and established an effective blood transfusion service that saved countless lives during the Mediterranean campaign.

In 1943 he was recalled from Cairo and put in charge of pathology for the 21 Army Group. He organized the laboratory and blood transfusion services for the Normandy landings, and also established the optimum methods of using penicillin in wound surgery. He was promoted brigadier in 1945. In 1946 his colleagues in the RAMC hoped that he would become their director general at the War Office, but John Boyd had had enough of full time administration and longed to get back to the bench.

He accepted the directorship of the Wellcome Laboratories of Tropical Medicine in Euston Road and supervised the research programme for the next nine years. His own distinguished work was centred on bacteriophage, which he regarded as a promising model for the study of the relationship between cells and viruses in human infections. In 1955 he became a Wellcome Trustee, and reinforced the interest of the Trust in diseases of the tropics.

He retired in 1966 but continued to take an active interest in the affairs of the RAMC and of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. He acted as the Society’s secretary, its president, was elected an honorary fellow, and received its highest award, the Manson medal. In May 1981 in his 90th year, a special meeting was arranged for him at Manson House, where he enjoyed meeting many of his old friends and colleagues; two months later, he died.

John Boyd served on numerous committees and received many honours. He was created Knight Bachelor in 1958. Almost all who had the good fortune to work with him admired and loved him. Long after the war, his team of Middle East pathologists continued to meet, and in 1962 they presented him with his portrait, by Norman Hepple, as a mark of their esteem. This now hangs in the RAMC Headquarters Mess at Millbank.

Sir John was a wonderful chief, astute and circumspect and inclined to conservatism. But once he made up his mind on a course of action he was vigorous, straight and true and never wavered. A memorial service was held at the Chelsea Hospital in October 1981, and Major General MHP Sayers said of him ‘He had the outward appearance of a soldier, yet spoke like a fellow of the Royal Society. If ever a man happily harmonized the rival calls of Mars and Aesculapius, it was John Boyd’. He was twice married; Elizabeth (née Edgar) died in 1956 and Mary (née Murphy) died in 1967. There were no children.

LG Goodwin

[Times, 13 June 1981;, 1981, 283, 314, 445; Lancet, 1981, 2, 482; Biogr.Mem.Roy.Soc., 1982, 28, 27-57]

(Volume VII, page 57)

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