Lives of the fellows

Peter Maxwell Daniel

b.14 November 1910 d.19 November 1998
MA Cantab(1940) MB BChir(1942) MRCS LRCP(1942) MA Oxon(1949) MRCP(1954) DM(1955) DSc Lond(1961) FRCP(1963) FRCPath(1963) FRCPsych(1971) FRCS(1973)

Peter Daniel’s scientific career spanned the exciting half century from the Second World War, during which so much in medicine changed. He contributed to this revolution in remarkably diverse ways. A theme running through most – but not quite all – of his work was the circulation of the blood through certain special organs.

His first-acquired skills were anatomical, developed when he was a medical student in Edinburgh, wither he had gone following his father’s withdrawal of support after Peter had been sent down not only from Westminster, but from St John’s, Cambridge. The reason in both cases was lack of application. He was poor – so poor that one of his teachers thought he looked hungry (which he was) and offered him modest payment for injecting at night the cadavers, with which he was locked up.

His father and the master of St John’s later relented and Peter re-qualified at Cambridge and the Charing Cross Hospital. By this time he was 32 – not a very propitious start to an academic career. His crucial move was to New College, Oxford, and pathology after his house jobs. Here he worked in the laboratory of Joseph Trueta. One evening, while photographing kidney specimens, it dawned on him that there must be a ‘shunt’ between their two circulations. Much work by many individuals followed, culminating in the 1947 monograph Studies of the renal circulation (Oxford, Blackwell Scientific Publications). Of it one of the reviewers said: ‘seldom does one encounter such a dramatic account of medical research…’.

It was about this time that a highly significant change occurred in Peter’s life. The formidable Dorothy Russell [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.510], who was a neuropathologist at the Radcliffe Hospital, moved to the London Hospital. It is said that she sent for Peter and simply said ‘Daniel, you take over here’. He did. At this time he began his studies on head injury with Sabina Strich based on the material in the head injury unit at St Hugh’s. New cases were referred and Peter’s exhaustive examinations led to the comment ‘if you want a good post mortem, come to Oxford’. In the same way he amassed material on tuberculous meningitis, a veritable gold mine (as his other collections were) for enthusiastic doctoral students.

During this period Peter began a series of collaborations with neurophysiologists which resulted in classical papers on vision (with David Whitteridge [Munk’s Roll, Vol.X, p.514]) and eye movement (with Sybil Creed). These early interests exemplify Peter’s approach to a biomedical problem. At the practical level, he was a skilled morphologist and physiologist; he had a flair for devising the informative experiment; he had great manual dexterity; and he had command of a wide and ever expanding range of techniques. At the conceptual level, he had an over-riding interest in mechanism, both in health and disease, which led to new insights in both physiology and pathology.

About 1950 he began with Marjorie Pritchard a study of the pituitary and its circulation. Here he showed for the first time that there are not one but two portal systems linking the neural and the glandular parts, an observation of profound importance for understanding how pituitary function is regulated in health and in disease. In the course of this work they demonstrated the hitherto unrecognised capacity of certain central nerve fibres to regenerate.

Peter’s manifold achievements came to the notice of Sir Aubrey Lewis [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p284] at the Institute of Psychiatry who accordingly invited him to take the chair of neuropathology there. Peter declined. Lewis was not a man to take ‘no’ for an answer, and travelled to Oxford, saying that he was not leaving until Peter agreed to move. Much was promised (some of it slow of fulfilment) and he acquiesced. From 1957 the Institute was the primary seat of Peter’s activities, though for years he continued to go to Oxford in his camper van, complete with cat, for two days a week. In parallel with his research he provided an exemplary neuropathological service to his colleagues in London.

One of the outstanding contributions of these years grew out of his interest in the Oxford days, in scrapie, a disease of sheep. The similarity between scrapie and kuru (the fatal disease of the brain occurring in the Eastern Highlands of New Guinea) had been noted, as had a further similarity between kuru and Creutzfeld-Jakob disease. Peter with Elizabeth Beck then developed a productive collaboration with Carlton Gadjusek and Gibbs at the National Institutes of Health, which resulted in the classical papers providing the pathological evidence that these human diseases are transmissible.

In his later years, physiological interests again came to dominate, when with Oliver Pratt and others, Peter turned to the study of the transport and entry of hormones, glucose, insulin and amino acids to brain, liver and muscle. After he retired in 1976 he continued to work a 15-hour day, at first at the Royal College of Surgeons and later at St Thomas’ Hospital Medical School as well. His habit was to work at St Thomas’ in the morning, the Royal College of Surgeons in the afternoon, and to walk to his home in Victoria via the Garrick Club, where his other life flourished. Here he was usually to be seen at the centre of animated talk, primarily because of his conversational skills, and perhaps not unrelated too, to his reputation for generosity with the champagne bottle.

At the Garrick, as elsewhere, he was ever alert to an opportunity to help someone. A few of his many collaborators have been mentioned. Many more benefited from his kindness and support, often through apparently casual (but in reality thoughtfully arranged) meetings with people who could help, and by facilitating their membership of organisations where careers could be furthered. Organisations too benefited from his commitment to them. He rose to high office in many (he was president of the British Neuopathological Society, the Medical Society of London, the Harveian Society of London, the Osler Club and the history section of the Royal Society of Medicine) and he was a fellow of four Royal Colleges (of Physicians, Surgeons, Pathologists [founder fellow] and Psychiatrists [founder fellow]), but there is little doubt that the one that reflected best the unifying theme of his professional life was the Physiological Society, which awarded him the distinction of life membership.

Peter Daniel’s achievement derived from his specific skills and his astonishing energy, which allowed him to be a pathologist by day and a physiologist by night, as his wife Marion put it. The support of Marion (who was a doctor and the granddaughter of President Cleveland of the United States) was an essential ingredient in his success. His last years were clouded by depression and he declined the rare honour of a dinner at the Garrick to celebrate his 80th birthday. He was married three times and left, in addition to his widow, six children, two sons and three daughters by his first wife (who died) and a son by his second (who also survived him).

W I McDonald

[The Physiological Society Annual Report 1998; The Times 30 Nov 1998; The Independent 16 Dec 1998]

(Volume XII, page web)

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