Lives of the fellows

Richard John William Rees

b.11 August 1917 d.3 October 1998
CMG(1979) BSc Lond(1939) MRCS LRCP(1941) MB BS(1942) MRCPath(1963) FRCPath(1964) FRCP(1983)

Dick Rees had a most distinguished career in the experimental pathology of mycobacterial disease. He was born in Wimbledon, Surrey, where his father (William) was a builder. He attended East Sheen County School, London, from which he entered Guy's medical school - graduating in 1941.

From 1941 to 1942 he served as a house physician and house surgeon at Dartford, Kent. During the Second World War he was a captain in the RAMC and served in the army blood transfusion service, first in North Africa and then in the Italian campaign.

Following demobilization he was appointed assistant clinical pathologist at Guy's Hospital. He was then a demonstrator of experimental pathology and morbid histology at Guy's medical school. These two relatively junior appointments largely determined his future career. He was appointed (in 1949) to the MRC unit (under Phillip D'Arcy Hart) at the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) at Mill Hill to work on tuberculosis.

In the early 1960s Rees switched from research in tuberculosis to leprosy; this was to dominate his life thereafter. From 1949 until 1969 he was a member of the NIMR scientific staff. In 1969 he became head of the laboratory for leprosy and mycobacterial research. He served in this capacity until his retirement from the MRC in 1982. During these years Rees was able to establish an international network of collaborators at Sungel Buloh (Malaysia) Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) and Hyderabad (Southern India).

Rees was secretary of the MRC leprosy committee (1959 to 1988), chairman of the Lepra medical advisory committee (1963 to 1987), consultant to the US Japanese Co-operative Scientific Programme on Leprosy (1969 to 1973), president of the section of comparative medicine of the Royal Society of Medicine (1975) and vice-president of the International Leprosy Association (1988 to 1998).

He was essentially a leader and driving spirit (in fact a team man who quietly and modestly led from the front). Although he kept well abreast of developments in experimental leprosy research, he would not have claimed to be a great bench worker, and far less an accomplished clinician. Experimentally his laboratory pioneered research on 'nude' mice, and in the absence of an in vitro culture medium for Mycobacterim leprae his team was able to utilise the nine-banded armadillo. He undoubtedly played a lead role in the development of chemo therapeutic strategies for the WHO leprosy programme.

Rees travelled widely and he and his team frequently dominated leprosy conferences throughout the world. For those close to him he exuded considerable kindness and charm; he was without doubt a superb example of a public relations man. He possessed the gifts of a great co-ordinator, although he did not always see eye-to-eye with all leprologists, especially those involved with the clinical aspects of this disease. He remained active long after retirement, continuing to serve as vice-chairman of Leprosy Review and as a member of the editorial board of the International Journal of Leprosy. Following retirement from the MRC, Rees also continued with LEPRA and the WHO (to which he served as an expert adviser on leprosy). He was also a keen (retired) member of the MRC's tropical medicine research board (TMRB) - now also disbanded - of which he had been a member from 1968 to 1972.

Many honours came his way. He gave the Erich-Hoffman (1968), the Almoth Wright (1971) and the first Clayden Memorial (1974) lectures. He was also the Erasmus Wilson demonstrator at the Royal College of Surgeons (1973). He was awarded the BMA silver film award (1974) and the highly prestigious Manson medal of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (1980).

Rees' published work covered numerous aspects of the pathogenesis, immunology, and chemotherapy of leprosy (and in his earlier days, tuberculosis also).

Rees married Kathleen (daughter of Ernest Joseph Harris - a hotel proprietor) in 1942; there were three daughters of the union.

Dick Rees was rarely to be seen in public without a small cigar; he also enjoyed good food and wine. As recreational activities he was a devoted gardener, and an enthusiastic opera/theatre goer. In the last two years of this life he was overtaken by widespread atherosclerotic disease - including an abdominal aortic aneurism for which surgery was required.

G C Cook

[The Times 3 Nov 1998; Brit.med.J., 1999,318,878]

(Volume XI, page 475)

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