Lives of the fellows

Robert Frederick Mahler

b.31 October 1924 d.29 May 2006
BSc Edin(1946) MB ChB(1947) MRCP(1949) FRCP(1968) FRCP Edin(1968)

Robert Mahler decided as a boy to become a biochemist and a doctor; he never wavered in his resolve, and was amongst the first to develop a career wholly in academic medicine. Robert was devoted to the College, which he served as a member of council, censor, Bradshaw lecturer (1977), editor of the Journal from 1987 to 1994, and then editor emeritus. He was for 20 years to the end of his life a benevolent and much loved presence in the College.

Robert was born in Vienna, a great nephew of the composer Gustav Mahler, and he kept throughout his life the culture and urbane charm of his native city. His father, Felix, was a surgeon, a distant figure who nevertheless transmitted to Robert a fascination for science. It was probably his father who gave Robert on his ninth birthday a chemistry set and two books by Paul de Kruif on the romance of medicine, which determined his future career. His mother, Olga, inspired in Robert a lifelong love of opera.

Robert’s life disintegrated after the Anschluss in March 1938. A few months later he and his younger brother were spirited out on a kindertransport to Britain and placed with different families in Edinburgh. Although their parents later escaped to India, Robert, but not his brother, declined to join them. The rest of the family perished in the war. Robert came to see these tragic events in some way as personally liberating – leaving him no alternative but to make his own way in the world.

Robert attended the Edinburgh Academy for two years. He relished the challenge and informality of its teaching after the pedestrian and rigid pedagogy of Vienna. He did brilliantly and entered Edinburgh University aged 16 with a bursary to read biochemistry, combining it with medicine a year later. Although he found much of the course uninspiring and the teaching dogmatic, he nevertheless graduated with first class honours in biochemistry and qualified with honours in medicine, pharmacology and pathology. Robert was firstly house physician to the professor of medicine at the Royal Infirmary and then did a surgical house job. He did not choose, however, to pursue his career in the comfort zone of Edinburgh. Already intent on a career in academic medicine, Robert had opportunistically asked the visiting Sir John McMichael [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.341] for a job at Hammersmith. There he went as house physician to Sir Graham Bull [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VIII, p.65] to work on the early dialysis machines and electrolyte metabolism. During this appointment he obtained the MRCP at his first attempt at the age of 24, being one of the youngest ever to pass the examination, and commenting characteristically that he ‘wanted to get it out of the way’. Two years of National Service in the RAF followed, first doing research and then as a medical specialist achieving the rank of squadron leader.

On demobilisation Robert pursued his academic intent with the MRC, working first with Charles Fletcher [Munk’s Roll, Vol.X, p.146] in Cardiff, and back at Hammersmith with Court Brown, before going to Lord Platt’s [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.470] department in Manchester to work with Bill Stanbury [Munk’s Roll, Vol.X, p.465] and Oliver Wrong. He published little in these years but, addicted to self-experimentation, he later claimed to be the embodiment of many points on many graphs in many papers by his colleagues in Clinical Science.

In 1956 Robert was appointed lecturer in therapeutics by Robert Hunter [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XI, p.281] at St Andrews. On arrival he found his colleagues and the medical school to be dull. He therefore wrote to Baird Hastings, head of the department of biological chemistry at Harvard, asking to come to work on carbohydrate metabolism in the liver with Albert Renold and Jim Ashmore. The MRC awarded him an Eli Lilly travelling fellowship. The two years from 1957 to 1958 were professionally the happiest and most productive of Robert’s life. He was stimulated by the scientific atmosphere of Harvard and delighted by the intelligence, enthusiasm and scientific curiosity of the medical students he taught. With no clinical responsibilities he was able to concentrate on his researches on the influence of insulin on hepatic glucose metabolism and on defining the enzymatic defect in McCardle’s disease. In the six years from 1959 he published a series of classic papers in major journals, which established his scientific reputation.

Although tempted to remain in the United States and having obtained a large personal National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant, Robert returned to St Andrews for family reasons. In 1959 he received a cryptic telegram from Lord Butterfield [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XI, p.83] at Guy’s ‘Matthew 11 verse 3’ – ‘Art thou he who shall come or do we look for another?’ He went as senior lecturer then reader in experimental medicine. At Guy’s he found an active department and congenial colleagues. He continued his own research, collaborated generously with others, and resumed clinical work. From 1963 to 1964 Robert was NIH visiting professor at Indiana University Medical School, but again he decided not to emigrate.

In 1966 Harold Scarborough [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VIII, p.439], who had been a mentor to the young Robert in Edinburgh, persuaded him to move to Cardiff as professor of metabolic medicine at the Welsh National School of Medicine. Four years later Robert succeeded Scarborough as professor of medicine, warning his colleagues that he would not stay for more than ten years. It was not to be a wholly happy period in his life. He had to contend with national, local, university and hospital politics in an environment that did not value academic medicine. Paradoxically his judgement and advice were greatly valued in London, both by the College and the MRC, where he was a member of the systems board and then of the council itself.

In 1975 Robert returned to the laboratory bench during a sabbatical as visiting professor at the Karolinska Institute, Stockholm. This experience steeled his resolve to leave Cardiff. He applied successfully for a joint MRC/NHS consultant post at the Clinical Research Centre and Northwick Park Hospital, a condition of his appointment being that he obtained peer-reviewed MRC support for his proposed research. Robert enjoyed his release from the thraldom of politicking and committees, his re-engagement with clinical work and research, and the ethos of rigorous scientific enquiry. Unhappily, the onset of Parkinson’s disease was soon to prevent him from working at the bench. Nevertheless, he greatly enjoyed his clinical work and teaching young doctors until his retirement in 1990.

Robert Mahler was ahead of his time. Whilst his contemporaries in academic medicine were using physiological techniques at the bedside to study organ malfunction resulting from disease, he sought to understand the biochemical basis of the diseases he encountered in his clinical practice in the laboratory. He saw clearly that the ‘pre-clinical’ sciences as then prescribed by the curriculum for medical students were an inadequate basis for clinical research or indeed for the lifelong practice of medicine. One of his aphorisms was that medical education should aim ‘to light fires not to fill jugs’. Robert was a most generous man, always willing to share his knowledge, and always choosing to collaborate rather than to build and direct a large team or department. Highly esteemed by those who were fortunate to have worked with him, he was less influential in a wider sphere.

In 1987 the President asked Robert to be the editor of the Journal of the College. This was for Robert an entirely novel kind of work. He was to prove an outstanding editor: imaginative, helpful, fastidious in his use of English, rigorous and efficient. He brought a scholar’s avocation to the task. Furthermore, he joined and became an important and benign member of the College community of officers and staff.

Robert had met Maureen Calvert when both were working at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. They married in 1951 and had two sons, Graeme and Brian. Maureen supported Robert throughout his career, establishing new homes at every move, making new friends, helping the wives and families of his staff, joining with him in the social life of the College, and sustaining him in his last years as his disabilities increased. Robert studied his Parkinson’s disease with interest and objectivity, and his last publications recounted its response to the treatment of his infection with Helicobacter pylori. Ischaemic heart disease also took its toll in his last years, affording him many opportunities, wryly taken, to compare the merits of various hospitals in north London. To the end Robert retained his courtesy, his objectivity, his ironic sense of humour and his clarity of expression.

Richard Himsworth

[The Independent 19 August 2006; The Guardian 24 August 2006; Brit.med.J., 2006 333 450.]

(Volume XII, page web)

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