Lives of the fellows

Gordon Cumming

b.31 May 1922 d.1 January 2001
BSc Lond(1947) PhD Birm(1952) MB ChB Birm(1956) MRCP(1964) FRCP(1971) DSc(1971)

Gordon Cumming was a former director of the Medical Research Institute at Midhurst. His first discipline was chemistry and he qualified as an external student of London University. When I first knew Gordon, he, John Bishop and I had been recruited by Melville Arnott at Birmingham to tackle the new and exciting problems of cardiac catheterization under the leadership of Kenneth Donald [Munk's Roll, Vol.X, p.112], who had worked in New York with the pioneer in this field, Andre Cournand.

Gordon Cumming contributed greatly to the work of our team. With him we developed a rapid spectrophotometric method of measuring the oxygen content of arterial and venous blood samples. This enabled the team to measure the cardiac output minute by minute at rest, during exercise and then during recovery after exercise with a bicycle ergometer, designed by Cumming and fixed to the X-ray table. The work was initially aimed at helping our surgical colleagues to identify those patients with rheumatic heart disease who would be helped by dilating a stenosed mitral valve, the only operative procedure available at that time.

What was found was unexpected. These patients had a low cardiac output at rest, which often rose hardly at all on exercise. The increased requirement of oxygen by the exercising muscles was met not by increasing cardiac output but by the extraction of much more oxygen from the circulating blood which returned to the right side of the heart profoundly desaturated and dark blue in colour.

At that time we had little accurate knowledge of the cardiac output on exercise in normal subjects. The idea of inserting cardiac catheters into the hearts of normal subjects was not to be considered lightly. But eventually we decided we would go ahead, but that in the first instance we would do the studies in ourselves, Donald first and then Bishop, Cumming and me. We then did studies in eight other men, seven of whom were doctors, and two nurses, both of whom worked closely with the team but insisted that we should not tell matron of this activity!

Another separate development of the work showed that when patients were exercising the blood from the legs and from the non-exercising parts of the body - arms, head and neck, liver and kidneys - was all equally desaturated. What was happening in these very disabled patients was that when they exercised, the blood supply to the arms and non-exercising parts of the body was reduced so that more blood could go to the exercising muscles. This totally unexpected and exciting discovery led on to studies of the changes in regional blood flow during exercise in patients and in normal subjects.

While this work was in progress Cumming, with encouragement from Arnott, decided that he would qualify in medicine. This was a difficult decision for a man in his early 30s who was already making his mark as a research worker. It meant that he had to turn aside from research to be a student again. After qualifying in 1956 he worked as a house officer for a year and then as a registrar at the Royal Postgraduate School in London, and then, after a year as a research fellow in New York with Andre Cournand, he returned to Birmingham as a lecturer and from 1965 to 1971, as a senior lecturer and reader with Arnott and honorary consultant physician to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital. But the ardours of clinical work were such that his research activity was limited. With Keith Horsfield, who was a competent mathematician, he did however contribute some interesting work on gas diffusion in the lungs.

Another difficult decision that he had to make was whether to accept the post of director of the newly established Medical Research Institute at Midhurst. The Institute would be isolated and would not have the back up available in university medical schools. However he accepted the challenge and held the post until he retired in 1987, after which the Institute was closed and its funding transferred to the Royal Brompton Hospital.

Cumming gave great support and encouragement to those who worked with him in the Institute. They were allowed to develop their research in their own way: this was much appreciated. Useful contributions on problems of pulmonary function were made by, amongst others, Keith Horsfield, Michael Thomas and Ivor Gabe. Gordon was always ready to criticize constructively and to make imaginative suggestions. His own work was mainly non-clinical with a special interest in mathematical analysis of gas diffusion in the lungs and gas transfer between alveoli and circulating blood - elaborating on the work of Fenn, Rahn and Otis in the USA in the 1950s. Outside the Institute he did a great deal of travelling and lecturing. He also gave much time as treasurer to the Medical Research Society.

After his retirement in 1987 Cumming created a private firm which created a computer database about drug therapy designed to help general practitioners to keep in touch with modern developments. But far his most interesting activity was furniture making and violin making - and also collecting old violins. He had always enjoyed music and in his youth he was a leading light in the Gilbert and Sullivan productions of the Birmingham Students Union. He produced and took one of the main roles in a remarkable production of the Pirates of Penzance.

Gordon married Jean Peasnell in 1951. They had been students at Oldbury County High School together and Jean had qualified at the Birmingham medical school in 1948. They had four sons and a daughter. He was a good father to his children but not such a good husband, for in later life he and Jean were separated for about seven years. They reunited after he had had treatment for carcinoma of the prostate, diagnosed in 1996 when he was living in Germany.

Gordon Cumming had a quick and brilliant intellect and he was always enthusiastic and stimulating about research with colleagues. But he was a man who always needed to be the focus of attention and he could be rather arrogant. I personally believe that some of his difficulties in life were the consequence of poor decision-making.

Owen Wade

(Volume XI, page 136)

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