Lives of the fellows

Eugene Bernard Dowdle

b.4 March 1930 d.6 August 2001
MB ChB Cape Town MD MRCP(1958) FRCP(1972)

Eugene Dowdle was one of South Africa’s most innovative, colourful and multifaceted physician scientists, with an impressive research record, especially in the fields of immunology and cancer biology. Named after the heavyweight boxing champion, Gene Tunney, and known as ‘Doodle’ from his student days onwards, he obtained his undergraduate medical training at the University of Cape Town.

His early postgraduate experience included a medical registrarship at Groote Schuur Hospital, followed by a further year at Queen’s University, Belfast. This latter period was the source of many fine anecdotes, all done with a very respectable Irish accent. Then followed two years of research fellowships, one year at Columbia University in New York and the other at the Scripps clinic in San Diego.

After returning to South Africa in 1960, Eugene Dowdle spent the next ten years in the department of medicine at the University of Cape Town. He excelled both as a clinician and as a bedside teacher, particularly at home in the ward environment, stimulated by bright young registrars and interns eager to learn.

Over these years he was also involved in productive research and his achievements were ultimately recognized in 1970, when he was appointed as professor and head of the newly created department of clinical science and immunology. It was an appointment he was to hold until his retirement in 1994. He was also director of the South African Medical Research Council’s unit for cellular biology for a number of years.

Eugene Dowdle pursued a number of research interests. The first was variegate prophyria, a prevalent disorder of sections of the South African population. With Len Eales [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XI, p.144] he did pioneering work in defining the biochemical derangements in the disorder. A second interest was tissue plasminogen activator, important not only in the dissolution of clots but also in a number of other biological processes. He and his coworker, Lyn Wilson, were among the first workers to characterize this protein. They also investigated the biology of tumour cells and the factors involved in their spread.

Eugene Dowdle’s interests, however, stretched far beyond his two major interests and he produced work on many other topics, ranging from mechanisms of allergy to the chemical structure of bushman arrow poison. He had a brilliant mind, with the rare ability to spot the strengths and weaknesses of any research proposal and, as a result, he was widely consulted by his colleagues. If anyone came to him with a question needing an answer, he was only too ready to take up the scientific challenge and set up a collaborative study.

Eugene Dowdle’s work on cancer was to earn him the Oettle memorial medal in 1981 and his general stature as a researcher was recognized in other ways. He was a visiting professor at a number of overseas universities and at one stage served as a member of the Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister. Particularly impressive was his ability to keep abreast of the cutting edge of science, even late in his career.

In 1989, he spent a sabbatical in Cambridge as a Lady Cade Research Fellow and several years later did another in Paris. While at Cambridge, he wrote in characteristic fashion, “It is years since I worked at the bench myself and I have enjoyed the renaissance enormously. It would be pretentious of me to describe my work as ‘molecular biology’, but if it meant getting grant money I could be persuaded to.” Indeed, the wonders of science never ceased to delight him, with his restless quest for knowledge ranging far beyond his own fields of interest.

Deeply steeped in the traditions of science, his presence enriched any scientific dialogue, since he had a rare capacity to fit particular findings into a much wider perspective. He was also a gifted teacher. He was able to simplify and explain complex problems and concepts, including those of a mathematical and statistical nature. Mathematics was, in fact, one of his many hobbies. He was intimately involved intellectually and practically in every experiment performed in his laboratory. Each result was challenged and analyzed in a way that taught scientific rigour and discipline to those fortunate enough to be trained by him.

Eugene Dowdle’s interests were not confined to medical science and throughout his life he read widely in the fields of philosophy, literature and current affairs. He was also a competent artist. At the centre of his life were his close-knit family and friends. With a wife, Yvonne, and one daughter, Caroline, accomplished professional pianists, music played a pivotal role in everyday life. Both he and his other daughter, Susan, a nuclear medicine physician, joined in these family performances.

He had a great capacity for friendship and showed an abiding and genuine concern for other peoples’ welfare. All his relationships were enriched by his impish wit. None of his humour was packaged – it arose solely from his own wry observations on the human condition. He was, indeed, a master raconteur – the quiet delivery, the pauses, the slight stutter and, finally, the explosively funny denouement.

The last period of Eugene Dowdle’s life was difficult. He was already suffering from cancer when his beloved wife died, and his own illness was painful and protracted. Despite his physical condition, his obsession with medical science, his pursuit of his hobbies, his interest in the world at large and his capacity for friendship, remained undiminished to the end.

Tom Bothwell
Lyn Wilson

(Volume XI, page 169)

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