Lives of the fellows

Leonard Eleazer Glynn

b.29 April 1910 d.10 December 2005
BSc Lond(1931) MB BS(1934) MRCS LRCP(1934) MRCP(1936) MD(1945) FRCP(1963) FRCPath(1965)

Leonard Glynn, or 'Glynn' as he was called even by those who knew him well, was a medical scientist who played an important part in making immunology an integral part of the theory and practice of medicine and pathology. In particular he helped to transform rheumatology from an intellectually torpid backwater of physical medicine into a vibrant discipline that now attracts some of the most questioning minds in clinical science.

Glynn was educated at the Grocers' School, University College and University College Hospital London. He specialized in pathology and during the second world war he was the sole teacher of pathology for students in the evacuated University College Hospital Medical School. At University College Hospital he started his research career by investigating the mechanisms of liver damage in munitions workers exposed to trinitrotoluene (TNT) with Sir Harold Himsworth [Munk's Roll, Vol.IX, p.238]. He was an outstanding teacher and Sir Bernard Tomlinson later recalled that he was influenced by three teachers at University College, the physiologist Sir Thomas Lewis [Munk's Roll, Vol.IV, p.531], the neurologist Sir Francise Walshe [Munk's Roll, Vol.VI, p.448], and Glynn.

In 1947 Glynn was appointed consultant pathologist to the Canadian Red Cross Memorial Hospital in Taplow, Buckinghamshire. This was a general hospital that had served as a military hospital for the Canadian forces during the war. In 1947 the special unit for juvenile rheumatism was established at Taplow to treat and investigate the then major problem of rheumatic fever and carditis. Glynn's consultant remit extended to this unit. In 1958 the unit was taken over by the MRC as the rheumatism research unit and Glynn became director of laboratory research. He faced a formidable organizational challenge. He had to set up his laboratory in a remote setting in huts bequeathed by the Canadian Government and which would have remained derelict in less stringent economic circumstances. The scientific challenge was no less formidable. The association between streptococcal infection and rheumatic fever had been firmly established, but the nature of this association was unknown. Later he had to consider the pathogenesis of a much wider range of rheumatic diseases.

By the time he retired in 1977 Glynn and his colleagues had achieved extraordinary success. When the unit was established, auto-immunity was a novel concept mainly ignored in medicine or at best regarded with suspicion. Glynn's research showed conclusively that auto-immunity induced by streptococcal infection is an important factor in the pathogenesis of rheumatic carditis. With the decline in the incidence of rheumatic fever, the unit's clinical attention turned increasingly to what is now termed juvenile idiopathic arthritis and is meticulously classified. In those days chronic arthritis in children was simply termed 'Still's disease'. Glynn's deep understanding of pathology and immunology enabled him to set out a coherent strategy for investigating chronic arthritis and connective tissue diseases whose pathogenesis was at the time even more mysterious than that of rheumatic fever. He recognized that auto-immunity could be at least partly responsible. He also realized that antigen persistence and the resulting chronic inflammatory response was another promising avenue to explore. He devised novel animal models and analysed clinical material to demonstrate these hypotheses. For many years these were standard models for testing novel anti-rheumatic agents. His findings also provided much of the basis for biological methods of treatment which are currently proving so successful. He was also one of the first to recognize the importance of genetic predisposition to rheumatic diseases. His work with John Holborow on secretor status and suspectibility to rheumatic fever was an early landmark in the burgeoning field of immunogenetics.

Glynn worked closely with his clinical colleagues Eric Bywaters [Munk's Roll, Vol.XI, p.86] and Barbara Ansell [Munk's Roll, Vol.XI, p.23]. The collaboration between clinical and laboratory investigators which they initiated at Taplow became a model for academic rheumatology units throughout the world. The unit attracted many visiting workers especially from the UK, North America and the Commonwealth. From 1972 to 1977 Glynn was director of the Kennedy Institute for Rheumatology before it moved to Imperial College's Charing Cross Hospital campus. His methods and organizational skills helped this institute's progress to tis present international eminence. Glynn's early years at Taplow also marked the introduction of tests for rheumatoid factor and other auto-antibodies in clinical rheumatology. He played an important part in establishing their scientific and clinical significance.

Glynn was as much a master of the English language as he was of laboratory experiments. His 1965 book (with John Holborow) Autoimmunity and disease (Oxford, Blackwell Scientific Publications) discussed a difficult and still contentious subject with complete clarity and objectivity and is a model of scientific writing. He brought the same literary qualities to the pioneering journal in this field, Immunology, which he edited from 1962 to 1982. His many acolytes benefited from his high standards when it came to writing theses and papers. He was in great demand as a speaker and visiting professor and in the developed and developing world of immunology and rheumatology. His many honours included the 1967 Heberden oration, the 1971 Cameron Foundation lectureship of the Royal College of Pathologists and election to the fellowship of University College London.

Glynn was renowned for his astute intellect, insight and wit. His quiet analysis of a scientific presentation was on occasion at least as vulnerable as the presentation itself. Yet he took pains never to offend and he always found time to discuss scientific issues and problems regardless of the status of the discussants. Even at the age of 95 he was a reliable commentator on past and present events in the scientific and wider world. He was an entertaining and wise raconteur with broad cultural interests. He was also a cricket enthusiast who took guard at the crease with an exactitude reflecting his laboratory habits. His first wife, Dorothy, died in 1975. His second wife, Doreen, survived him.

Alan Michael Denman

(Volume XII, page web)

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