Lives of the fellows

Ian Allingham Magnus

b.27 October 1920 d.13 February 2006
MRCS LRCP(1944) MB BChir Cantab(1945) MRCP(1949) MD(1963) FRCP(1967)

Ian Magnus was a pioneering clinical photobiologist who transformed his subject from idea to reality. He was born in Brighton, but spent his first ten years in India in Calcutta, where his father had commercial interests, and in up-country Darjeeling, where the family took their vacations. He returned to England for his schooling at Clifton College, Bristol, where he excelled as a musician, an interest he pursued throughout his life, as well as being a very capable cross-country runner. He went up to Cambridge University in 1939, followed by clinical studies at St Thomas’s Hospital, London, whence he graduated in medicine in 1944, before undertaking his house jobs, also at St Thomas’s Hospital.

At the end of the second world war in 1945 he was posted to Cyprus as medical officer in the Guards Brigade and then as deputy assistant director of medical services, before returning to the UK to become registrar in dermatology to Edmund Moynihan and Louis Forman [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VIII, p.163] at Guy’s Hospital in 1948. At Guy’s, a chance meeting with Robert Thompson led to his being lured into research, eventually at the St John’s Institute of Dermatology, London, first as senior lecturer, where he remembers vividly the powerful influence at that time of Geoffrey Dowling [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.163] on the advancement of dermatology. However, of more direct effect on him was Stephen Gold, who encouraged him to take over the running of the then embryonic photobiology unit, which the far-sighted Arthur Porter had just established by setting up a prototype diagnostic and research tool, the skin irradiation monochromator, in spite of protestations from others in the scientific community who felt the device would be of little value. Somewhat hesitantly to begin with, Magnus went into the field, soon to make it his own, writing his doctoral thesis on the subject and studying in particular the cutaneous porphyrias. In this field, he rapidly proceeded to extend the work of Lang in Germany, whence came the discovery by Magnus of erythropoietic protoporphyria (EPP), a major advance undertaken in collaboration with that other eminent porphyrinologist, Claude Rimington FRS. Studies in chemical and drug photosensitivity followed, before a move into the broader field of the then so-called idiopathic photodermatoses. As a result, he spawned in the UK the whole new concept of clinical photobiology, which has since been enthusiastically carried forward in leaps and bounds by the many to whom he was mentor and provider of an essential launching platform into the discipline. The photobiology unit now exists in fine fettle today at the St John’s Institute of Dermatology, St Thomas’s Hospital, London, where the studies he initiated and published widely on have been immeasurably expanded and continue to be so. Without the vision of Ian Magnus, however, it could never have happened.

Magnus was consulted in the 1960s during the development of the Concorde aircraft because of concerns about consequent ozone layer depletion and increased ultraviolet penetration to the earth’s surface. He went on a test flight and survived, as for many years did the aircraft! He was asked somewhat later to go on the Michael Parkinson television chat show concerning related matters, but not even a personal call from the show host could persuade him to abandon his undemonstrative nature and he never appeared in front of the cameras.

In retirement, Magnus enjoyed many other interests, not only passions for literature, particularly poetry, and above all music, but also the delights of sharing them with his family and promoting them wherever possible. He was a patron of several musical institutions, and supported many charities, particularly relating to medicine and world development. He was also extremely sociable and generous, if always somewhat retiring, such that after his frequent generous offers of hospitality to family and friends, he would unfailingly ply them with commemorative bottles or tasty food parcels to take on the homeward journey! He is survived by his wife, Frances, and five children.

John Hawk

[Brit.med.J.,2006,333,811]

(Volume XII, page web)

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