Lives of the fellows

Reginald Thomas Brain

b.6 June 1894 d.10 December 1971
MRCS LRCP(1923) MB BS Lond(1924) MRCP(1925) MD(1928) FRCP(1935)

Reginald Brain was born in the village of Wilnecote in Warwickshire, one of the nine children of Robert Brain and Mary Elizabeth Kimberlin. His father was the manager of a terracotta works, and his grandfather was a schoolmaster. He was educated at Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School in Tamworth, Staffordshire, where he was captain of football and won the School Medal as well as the Victor Ludorum Medal. After leaving, he taught at a school in Ealing for a short period, during which he studied for an Inter-BSc in physics and chemistry.

At the outbreak of war in 1914 he joined up at once as a Private in the Royal Army Medical Corps, being assigned to the 48th Field Ambulance. Following a period of training at Limerick in Ireland his unit embarked with the British Expeditionary Force for France. He rose to the rank of sergeant and became Senior Laboratory Assistant in the pathology laboratory of Lt. Col. (later Sir) Charles G. Martin, FRS in the 25th Stationary Hospital at Rouen. Brain was good with his hands, and inventive. While in France in 1917 he made a special grease for burettes and patented the formula which was later used in gas meters. He received a small sum in royalties for this over a period of forty years.

After demobilization in 1919 he resumed his work for the BSc but changed to a First MB course, as a result of encouragement by Sir Charles Martin and by his eldest sister, who was a Ward Sister at The London Hospital. He was accepted by the Medical College there, where he won prizes for organic chemistry and chemical pathology. As a post-war student he found his seniority in years over most of his fellows a help rather than a hindrance. It endowed him with maturity, self-confidence and a sense of leadership. He captained the Hospital’s Association Football team.

Brain qualified MRCS and LRCP in October, 1923 and passed the MB BS (London) in 1924. He took the MRCP the following year, was awarded the MD degree in 1928 (for which his thesis was on phosphorus metabolism) and was elected FRCP in 1935. After qualification he took House appointments in general medicine, pathology and dermatology, but gained some experience of general practice for short periods between these. From 1926 to 1928 he was Assistant to the Medical Unit and a Research Fellow in the Unit’s biochemistry laboratory. During his time as house physician to Lord Dawson of Penn he looked after, and was present at the operation by Sir Henry Souttar on a girl of 15 who had a mitral valvotomy, probably the first attempt at this procedure (Brit. Med. J. 1925, ii, 603), an account of which was later given in The London Hospital Medical Gazette of 1961.

Brain was First Assistant in the Skin, Light and Venereal Disease departments from 1928 to 1931, but his interest in laboratory work then led him to spend the next four years as a Research Fellow in the Freedom Laboratory under the direction of Professor S.P. Bedson, supported by the Walter Dixon Scholarship of the British Medical Association. His research there was entirely on virus diseases of the skin, on which he was to contribute many original papers. It was there that he successfully isolated the herpes simplex virus from a patient with Kaposi’s varicelliform eruption at a time when its cause was unknown, but he was reluctant to publish his findings. His knowledge and experience made him almost the only expert on virus diseases at dermatological meetings over the next thirty years. He was the senior Clinical Assistant to the Skin and Light Departments of Charing Cross Hospital from 1931 to 1933.

He was appointed Physician to Outpatients and later to the Skin and Light Departments at the Evelina Hospital for Sick Children from 1927 to 1932; Consultant Dermatologist to a group of London County Council Hospitals from 1928 to 1946, and by invitation to the British Postgraduate Medical School at Hammersmith from 1935 to 1948; he was a Consulting Dermatologist to the Foundling Hospital from 1934 and to the Royal School of Deaf and Dumb Children from 1951.

In 1935 he was appointed Physician to the Skin Department at the Royal Free Hospital, a post he held until 1959, when he reached retiring age, becoming Honorary Consultant in Dermatology that same year. He was appointed Physician to St John’s Hospital for Diseases of the Skin in 1932, and to the Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street, in 1934, holding both these posts until he retired.

Brain’s specialist training had been in J.H. Sequeira’s department at The London Hospital, which was a dermatological Mecca at the time, and which naturally attracted a distinguished group, including Arthur Burrows, W.J. O’Donovon and J.T. Ingram (later Professor at Newcastle). All were destined like Brain to head important departments. And it was with Dr. Ingram that he wrote a new edition of Sequeira’s standard textbook in 1957.

Many honours naturally accompanied his career. He was President of the Section of Dermatology of The Royal Society of Medicine from 1954 to 1956, and of the St. John’s Hospital Dermatological Society from 1938 to 1948, to whom he delivered the Prosser White Oration in 1961 on The Philosophical Dermatologist. He was an honorary member of the Danish, Australian, French and Venezuelan Dermatological Societies. His Watson Smith Lecture to the Royal College of Physicians in 1956 was entitled Clinical Vagaries of the Herpes Virus. His major contributions to medical literature were on kidney phosphatase, virus infections in the skin, radon and radiotherapy, ringworm of the scalp and paediatric dermatology. Apart from the 1957 edition of Sequeira’s textbook, he wrote a book on Skin Diseases in Duckworth’s Modern Health Series (with his own drawings) and contributed to Nursing and Diseases of Children (by Moncrieff and Norman) and Diseases of Children (by Garrod, Bolton and Thursfield).

These are the bald facts of Dr. Brain’s career. But there was so much more to the man. He was fond of his Warwickshire background and liked to be regarded as a countryman who cherished the simple human values of warmth, reliability, thrift, integrity and generosity. Coming from a large family he remained a family man, never allowing the demands of his career to take precedence over those of his family. He experienced many of the vicissitudes of life in his personal and professional career, but his strength enabled him to triumph over all of them, and to give sound advice and encouragement to many young doctors when faced with similar adversities. He was particularly kind and generous to many dermatologists from Europe who came to England as political refugees before, during and after World War II, as well as to ex-Service doctors wanting to take up a dermatological career after demobilisation. He welcomed anyone to attend his clinics and ward rounds and was ever willing to teach and discuss patients with them. Many present day consultants owe him a considerable debt. At the Royal Free Hospital a second dermatologist was appointed a few years before his retirement; it was wholly in character that he at once handed over all the major policy decisions of the department to his future successor. He was equally generous in private practice, inviting young consultants to share his rooms and services in Harley Street at minimal cost. Throughout his life he remained a humble, shy and sensitive man.

Brain was perhaps most of all loved by his patients. His clinics were always large, as was his private practice, patients being referred by numerous ex-students and other practitioners. As the consultant to The Hospital for Sick Children at Great Ormond Street he became an authority on paediatric dermatology, and generations of registrars went there to learn from him. He had a specially designed children’s ward there, run for many years by an outstandingly capable and devoted Ward Sister, and where his ward rounds were like a family visit, culminating in an enjoyable tea party in the office. He introduced daily bathing for eczema patients long before it became widely accepted, and designed a special bath to provide isotonic baths for the infants.

He preferred simplicity and improvisation to modem technology. He designed his own diathermy and cautery apparatus for physical therapy, and a magazine for radon needles when they were more widely used. It is said that at one time he patented a new type of bicycle saddle similar in design to a shooting stick which he considered more comfortable, but very few of them were made. At home he was always a ‘do-it-yourself’ man, and when he moved from Highgate to Loudwater, he fitted himself up with a workshop in a garden shed where many of the tools were of his own design, including an electric cigarette lighter. He was also a good draughtsman. His favourite hobbies throughout his life were fishing, gardening and electrical engineering.

Dr. Brain was especially fortunate in the companionship of a wonderful wife, Hallie Frances Weir, whom he married in 1928 and who blessed him with a daughter, now married and living in the United States, and two sons, one of whom became a consultant geriatrician. Just before retirement he moved to a delightful house with a large garden at Loudwater in Hertfordshire. He continued to practise in Harley Street until a short time before his death, but was able to enjoy his country life to the full. It was there that he first suffered a minor stroke and succumbed peacefully in hospital to a major one a few months later. His loyalty and service to the Royal Free Hospital were outstanding, and not surprisingly he donated all his books, clinical photographs, histological collection and papers to the Department of Dermatology there. He displayed all the qualities of a fine doctor, a great dermatologist and a wonderful family man.

CD Calnan

[Brit.med.J., 1971, 4, 816; Lancet, 1972, 1, 50; Times, 15 Dec 1972]

(Volume VI, page 57)

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