Lives of the fellows

Ivor Henry Mills

b.13 June 1921 d.14 December 2005
BSc Lond(1942) PhD(1946) BA Cantab(1948) MB BChir Cantab(1951) MRCP(1953) MD(1956) FRCP(1964) Hon FACP(1975)

Ivor H Mills was professor of medicine at the University of Cambridge from 1963 to 1988. Born in London, he was educated in Glasgow and at Selhurst Grammar School, Croydon, before going on to Queen Mary College, University of London, where he gained a first class BSc degree. In 1946 he submitted a PhD thesis on reproductive biology, and then read medicine at Trinity College, Cambridge, obtaining another first in the tripos in 1948. He went to St Thomas’s for his clinical training, qualifying in 1951 and getting his MRCP in 1953 and an MD in 1956 after working with Sharpey-Shafer [Munk’s Roll, Vol.V, p.372] and Prunty [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.482]. His academic career started with appointments at the interface between medicine and chemical pathology, as a lecturer and then reader at St Thomas’s. In 1963 he was appointed professor of medicine in Cambridge, and honorary consultant at Addenbrooke’s Hospital.

Mills had an early interest in the then recently discovered hormone aldosterone (which regulates the excretion of salt), deepened by a year spent with Frederic Bartter [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.28] in the USA – a leading international figure in the field. After his return to the UK, Mills and Hugh de Wardener (subsequently professor of medicine at the Charing Cross Medical School) published two classic papers in 1961 (one a so-called ‘citation classic’), which clearly indicated there were hormonal influences other than aldosterone affecting sodium excretion by the kidney – the subsequent search for the identity of these ‘natriuretic hormones’ was long and protracted.

When Ivor Mills arrived in Cambridge in 1963 there was no clinical medical school (the university’s preclinical medical students mainly went to London to learn clinical medicine) and he established a department of investigative medicine. Mills was a determined advocate for the need for a school of clinical medicine in Cambridge, and when the university finally voted in favour of establishing the school, stimulated by the building of the new Addenbrooke’s Hospital, he moved in 1974 to the new department of medicine in the hospital. Other staff in his department at that time included John Walsh [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.548], who made significant discoveries in the treatment of Wilson’s disease, Edward de Bono (subsequently known for his advocacy of ‘lateral thinking’), and Dame Elsie Widdowson, the distinguished nutritionist, to whom Mills gave space in her very active retirement.

Ivor Mills’ fascination for hormones and endocrinology led to his growing interest in the pituitary gland, the hypothalamus and the central brain mechanisms concerned with mental drive and depression. He was intrigued by patients who had attempted suicide: he led studies of deliberate self-poisoning and his loyal support of young women with eating disorders, especially anorexia nervosa, all reflected his interest and concern that modern life was creating insupportable burdens for some members of society. These were then relatively unusual areas for a physician to investigate, and in some ways Ivor Mills was ahead of his time – the study of hormonal influences on behaviour and the mind are now an important area of clinical investigation.

Ivor Mills was a truly scholarly man – he was senior scholar at Trinity in 1948, a Fellow of the College from 1964, a fellow of the American College of Physicians and a fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge. He served on committees for the Medical Research Council, Department of Health and at the College (where he was Pro-Censor from 1974 to 1975, Censor from 1975 to 1976 and Croonian lecturer in 1977). The views he formed about the hypothalamus and reactions to stress found wider expression at meetings of the Royal Society study group on human biology in urban environments and on the committee of management of the Institute of Criminology in Cambridge.

Mills was a relatively private man, and a great gardener (his stated recreation in Who’s Who). He was also an indefatigable writer of letters to The Times, of which a good number were published. After retirement in 1988 he continued working on the literature of his field, but gradually the Parkinson’s disease which he developed made this more difficult – although he showed exemplary stoicism in the face of its effects.

Ivor Mills was a man who gave himself unsparingly to those who needed help, a forceful debater, especially if he felt that the principles of natural justice were in danger, and an exponent of cut and thrust in research discussions and seminars. But he was also a clinician who worked long into the evenings, talking to his patients and showing great compassion for those who could not cope with modern society. His commitment in all these matters was personal and often intense. In many ways Ivor Mills was the epitome of the modern clinical academic; his attempts to translate chemical changes in hormonal regulation to a better understanding of the psychosocial aspects of the patients he cared for were far in advance of his time and as a consequence were not fully appreciated by many of his contemporaries.

He is survived by his wife Sydney, formerly a staff nurse at the Middlesex, and his son and daughter.

Patrick Sissons
Tim Cox

[The Times 21 March 2006]

(Volume XII, page web)

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