Lives of the fellows

Robert Knox

b.? 1904 d.23 August 2000
BA Oxon(1927) MB BS(1932) MRCS LRCP(1932) MD Lond(1934) MRCP(1934) MA Cantab(1935) FRCP(1953) FCPath(1963)

Robert Knox was professor of bacteriology at Guy's Hospital from 1949 until he retired in 1969. This period neatly spanned the rise of the 'hospital staph' and its (alas temporary) defeat, and saw the opening up of a new era of antibiotic therapy, to which Knox made major contributions.

Knox was the son of Robert, an eminent radiologist. He went to school in Highgate. He won an exhibition to Balliol College, Oxford, where he read Greats between 1922 and 1926, coxed the Oxford boat in 1925 and then switched to medicine. He qualified at St Bartholomew's Hospital in 1932, and obtained the MD and MRCP in 1934, while filling the posts of house physician and later chief assistant to Lord Horder [Munk's Roll, Vol. V, p.198] at Barts.

After spending two years as demonstrator in pathology at Cambridge (during which time he married), he joined the scientific staff of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund in 1937, and is listed as a member of their staff until 1945. However, at the outbreak of war, Knox joined the newly set up Emergency Public Health Laboratory Service, and worked successively as director at Stamford, Leicester and Oxford.

His publications during this period covered a very wide range of topics, both laboratory orientated (e.g. filterable tumour agents, culture of the diphtheria bacillus) and clinical (e.g. the reporting and control of outbreaks of paratyphoid, food poisoning and streptococcal infections). However, the work he spoke about the most in later years was of devising a selective medium for the growth of salmonella.

His duties as professor of bacteriology at Guy's did not include overseeing the routine service - this was done by Walter Merivale [Munk's Roll, Vol.VI, p.336], the consultant in clinical pathology - so only the more interesting and difficult specimens came to his department. The teaching load was not heavy, and administration relatively simple (decisions could usually be taken without the benefit of committee, and problems solved by a quiet chat with the medical superintendent). Thus, notwithstanding his opinion often being sought by clinical colleagues, Knox had time to devote to the research topics that most interested him, namely sterilization, the diagnosis and treatment of tuberculosis and strategies of antibiotic therapy in general.

The latter expertise, together with his early interest in the mode of action of penicillin (he had published on this in 1945) made Knox's laboratory an obvious choice for Beecham Research Laboratories as a test bed for the new penicillins in the early 1960s, in collaboration with colleagues such as Douthwaite, Houston and Trafford. Knox was first to report simultaneously with Jevons, the existence of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), now endemic all over the world. However, this achievement is often overlooked in the literature, as, for purely alphabetical reasons, Jevons' paper preceded by one page that of Knox (BMJ 1961 i 126).

Knox enjoyed being external examiner in the West Indies, and on one memorable occasion all his staff had to be vaccinated against smallpox on his return due to an outbreak on the Islands while he was performing his duties there.

Although his relationships with other senior colleagues, such as RH ('Peter') Gorrill , Robert Thompson and George Payling Wright [Munk's Roll, Vol.V, p.461], seemed to be rather stiff and formal, within the department, especially at coffee at the ritual time of 10.35 am (prompt), there was a very friendly atmosphere. Certain topics of conversation were, however, taboo, including the boat race (Oxford famously sank when Knox was cox) and motor cars (Knox unfortunately had bought a German car - an Opel - just before war broke out, and he was unable to obtain spare parts).

Despite having three daughters, Knox was clearly happier professionally dealing with male colleagues, but his skill in filling posts is reflected by the fact that at least six members of the junior staff during the 1960s went on to become professors. He allowed his staff to get on with the job without hindrance, an attitude that greatly encouraged innovative paths of research. He knew he was running a happy ship, and was proud of it; this attitude continued into retirement, when he took pleasure in the continuing careers of those who had been his junior staff. He was always available with a helpful comment and an encouraging word, and rarely expressed displeasure.

His classical background meant that his writing was a model of clarity and precision, and he had the enviable ability to explain why a certain passage that someone else had written was grammatically and/or syntactically inaccurate.

Knox was a keen golfer, and went skiing for the first time when he was 60 years of age. He had a beautiful house in the Surrey countryside with a fine garden. Although small in stature, Knox was large in intellect and humanity; in all a fine example of one of the 'old school' of pathologists, now defunct.

J M T Hamilton-Miller

[Brit.med.J., 321,2000,1025; The Guardian]

(Volume XI, page 323)

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