Lives of the fellows

Robert Charles Turner

b.26 November 1938 d.1 August 1999
BA Cantab(1960) MB BChir(1963) MA(1964) MRCP(1965) MD(1972) FRCP(1977)

Robert Turner, founder and director of the diabetes research laboratories at Oxford University and professor in medicine at the Nuffield department of medicine, was the UK’s most productive, imaginative and influential clinical investigator in the field of diabetes mellitus in the post-war era.

Turner graduated from the Middlesex Hospital and, following house officer and registrar posts in London, undertook a Leverhulme research fellowship with John Nabarro and Roger Ekins. It was during this period he first began his interest in diabetes research by working on the development of novel assays to measure insulin.

Following a travelling fellowship to the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, he returned to the UK in 1972 to take up a clinical lecturer post at the Radcliffe Infirmary.

In 1976 he established the diabetes research laboratories in Oxford. Over the next 23 years this unit became a byword for excellence and innovation in the field of research into type 2 diabetes. Robert’s view of type 2 diabetes as an endocrine disorder of the pancreas, amenable to the intellectual approach taken to other hormonal disorders, was central to conceptual advances in the discipline, particularly in terms of the understanding of beta-cell dysfunction. Other major contributions in the area of type 2 diabetes included the recognition of the role of islet amyloid in that disease and the identification of genetic defects responsible for forms of type 2 diabetes.

In addition to these scientific achievements, Robert was driven to develop practical aids to help the life of people with diabetes. One example was his invention of an automated blood sampling device, the successors of which are now used by millions of people with diabetes world-wide.

Poignantly, it was in the last year of his life that Robert received the universal recognition that he long deserved. With extraordinary determination, and in the face of much opposition, Robert had decided that a large randomized trial of existing therapies of type 2 diabetes must be carried out, to ensure that diabetic patients were obtaining the best available treatment. The United Kingdom prospective diabetes study, the results of which were published in the autumn of 1998, was an extraordinary tour de force. Plaudits and honours rightly followed. In 1999, among numerous awards, he was the Banting lecturer of the British Diabetic Association, and the recipient of the Charles Best award of the American Diabetes Association. To Robert, however, far more important that these baubles was the improvement in clinical outcome for people with diabetes that would result from the implementation of the results of his study.

The above litany of Robert’s achievements in basic and applied science provides little insight into the exceptional nature of the man. He really thought that diabetes was a dreadful disease and was a compassionate and wise physician, greatly esteemed by his patients.

His qualities of boyish enthusiasm, intellectual curiosity and basic human decency had a profound effect on a generation of young trainees that passed through the diabetes research laboratories, many of whom have gone on to leading positions in academic and clinical medicine world-wide.

Robert always took a remarkable personal interest in the well-being of every member of his laboratory, from volunteers and cleaners to fellow scientists. Like all great men, he could, on occasion, be utterly infuriating. This was entirely due to his inability to understand the phrase "it can’t be done" - even if this was uttered in unison by all his colleagues and an authoritative body of the great and good. In the end, if Robert was involved, it was always done, and done extraordinarily well.

In 1970 Robert married Jennie Faux, an immunologist. They had two children, Nicholas and Alexander. Their lovely house in Belbroughton Road provided a warm and hospitable nest where international waifs and strays were made to feel welcome and cared for.

His sudden and unexpected death from an intracerebral haemorrhage was an enormous blow to his family and to his friends in the international diabetes community, a fact testified to by the attendance at his memorial service of leading clinical scientists from every corner of the globe.

Stephen O’Rahilly

(Volume XI, page 587)

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