Lives of the fellows

Robin Michael Winter

b.26 October 1950 d.10 January 2004
BSc Lond(1971) MB BS(1974) MRCP(1976) FRCP(1990)

Robin Winter, professor of clinical genetics and dysmorphology at the Institute of Child Health and Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, and one of the most revered clinical geneticists of his generation, died at the early age of 53 from cancer of the oesophagus. One of his main aims during his professional life was to foster communication between the disciplines, so that the genetic causes of human disorders could be identified. He was so successful in doing this that by the time of his premature death he had achieved that most rare of distinctions - commanding equal respect from both his medical and scientific colleagues.

Robin Winter was born in 1950 in Crosby, Lancashire, into a medical family - his father and father's brother were consultant radiologists, two of father's sisters were GPs, and another brother specialised in occupational health. In Robin's generation, his brother is a haematologist and two first cousins are doctors. All of this I have gleaned from the biographical details of Fellows form, where Robin drew a pedigree, headed by the words "Autosomal dominant doctors in family".

Robin qualified in medicine at University College London in 1974. His interest in genetics was stimulated by a number of eminent geneticists working at the Galton Institute, which was attached to University College London. He especially remembered Hans Gruneberg, who taught him about the genetics of mouse development. After various house officer and senior house officer appointments, he went to Richmond, Virginia, USA, to the department of human genetics, where he studied under Walter Nance. On his return from the USA, he was appointed clinical geneticist at the Kennedy Galton Centre at Northwick Park and in 1992 he moved to the Institute of Child Health and Great Ormond Street Hospital, where he subsequently became professor of dysmorphology and clinical genetics.

Robin was an intellectual giant and his memory was remarkable. He had a wonderful recall for faces and patterns of malformation and this made him internationally recognised as possibly the best clinical dysmorphologist in the world (dysmorphology is the study of malformation). He was particularly drawn to the understanding of those born with recurring patterns of multiple malformations, so-called syndromes, the diagnosis of which is often based on pattern recognition. While some of the requisite skills can be learned, many are instinctive, Robin having an enviable 'sixth sense'. He seemed to have an unmatched 'eye' for a syndrome. Combined with his relentless reading of journals, command of detail and his power of recall, these clinical skills resulted in him being the person to whom everyone turned to for the definitive diagnosis. It was always fascinating to see him at clinics. He would take off his jacket and get down to work like a master craftsman of times gone by. You could almost hear his brain working as he carefully picked over the evidence. He was in addition a courteous man. It was not only the challenge of trying to come to grips with difficult diagnoses that attracted him; he loved sitting down with families and talking to them about genetics. His expertise helped so many patients and their families, who, after many attempts, finally went home with a diagnosis, feeling less isolated and neglected than before. Papers were written based on his observations in the clinic and, at the time of his death, he had published more than 200.

Robin was senior editor of the journal Clinical Dysmorphology, and he co-authored (with Michael Baraitser) the London Dysmorphology Database and the London Neurogenetics Database for over 20 years. These are computer-based diagnostic programmes used by clinical geneticists wordwide. The databases won prizes and we had recently formed a small company to publish it (after Oxford University Press closed their electronic division). Robin took over the VAT calculations, the taking of orders, and the computer troubleshooting and, with the help of Joan, his wife, even the packaging and posting. Given a busy academic life, this had to be done in 'spare time'. He got through more work that most of us could ever contemplate doing.

He was fascinated by human-mouse homology and constructed a mouse database for the purpose of comparing the malformations seen in the hundreds of known mouse genetic strains with those seen in humans, thereby facilitating the mapping of human genes. His most recent contribution was in identifying the gene for Fraser syndrome (covered eye syndrome), a serious malformation in man, often leading to blindness, which he found occurred in mice too.

His achievements were widely honoured within this profession, and he gave invited lectures to the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, the American College of Medical Genetics and the American Society of Human Genetics. He served on the editorial boards of many journals, and he was one of the founding editors of Clinical Dysmorphology. He served on committees advising medical research organisations, including the Medical Research Council. He was awarded the Baschirotto prize by the European Society of Human Genetics and the Maria Vilma and Bianca Querci Foundation prize, and he was a past president of the Clinical Genetics Society. These honours he bore with characteristic nonchalance - he was not bothered by fame, did not cry out for recognition, did not care if his name was first on a publication, or even there at all, and he wasn't particularly interested in the trappings of professorial life.

Robin was a very private man. He found social engagements rather tedious and he liked nothing better than to have long periods of undisturbed time, to be alone with his thoughts and be busy on the computer. He had an impish sense of humour. We needed a picture of the two of us to place on the London Medical Databases website and all we could find was one of Sir Michael Rutter standing in between us. With great glee, he had Sir Michael air-brushed out of sight. Like so many very clever people, he never quite trusted others to get it right and therefore undertook all difficult tasks himself. As one of the editors of Clinical Dysmorphology, I knew, and totally accepted, that Robin would always have the last say and stamp his mark on the final product - and we never cared, because we knew that the end result would always be better that we ever dared to hope.

He loved good food and, latterly, exotic holidays. He would always wear his pink shirt, the same colour as the cover of Clinical Dysmorphology to the quarterly London Dysmorphology Club meetings. He was the expert's expert at that meeting, which will never be the same without him. He leaves his wife Joan, and children Henry and Amy, a medical student.

Michael Baraitser

[The Times 19 Jan 2004; The Guardian 21 Jan 2004]

(Volume XI, page 631)

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