Lives of the fellows

Philip John (Sir) Randle

b.16 July 1926 d.26 September 2006
Kt(1985) MB BChir Cantab(1951) MA(1951) PhD(1955) MD(1964) MRCP(1964) FRCP(1972) FRS(1983)

Sir Philip Randle, a biochemist of international distinction, was a monumental figure, both intellectually and physically, whose research interests centred on carbohydrate, protein and fat metabolism, particularly as they related to the disturbances of diabetes mellitus. He was an acknowledged master of the classical era of biochemistry, concerning himself with the mechanisms and control of intermediary metabolism and leaving his imprint upon the proposed reciprocal interaction between glucose and fatty acid oxidation in the cycle that bears his name.

Inevitably, the actions of the key hormones insulin and somatotropin were integral to his thought and work. He will also be remembered for helping bridge the gap between the biological and the immunological assay of insulin. While an MRC research fellow in Cambridge in the 1950s, he became one of the prime exponents of the biological assay, joining the handful of people at that time who were trying to estimate circulating insulin levels by measuring the stimulating effect of plasma on glucose uptake on the rat hemidiaphragm. In the early 1960s, with his colleague and friend Nick Hales, he devised the ingenious two-antibody insulin immunoassay, a sensitive and specific method now very widely applied to the estimation of many other biologically important molecules.

Born the son of a master baker, Philip Randle was educated at King Edward VI Grammar School, Nuneaton. He then studied at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, and qualified in medicine at University College Hospital in 1950. After junior appointments, which included serving as house physician to Sir Max Rosenheim [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.394], he returned to Cambridge to the biochemistry department headed by Sir Frank Young [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VIII, p.559], where he obtained a PhD for work on the actions of insulin.

The Cambridge years were immensely productive, generating the Randle cycle, the insulin immunoassay and some key ideas on how glucose stimulated insulin release from the pancreatic islets. With a burgeoning world reputation, in 1964 he was appointed professor and head of the new department of clinical biochemistry at the University of Bristol. Over the following decade he built a world class team of talented biochemists around him and, in 1975, now a leading figure in his discipline, he was appointed to the chair of clinical biochemistry at the University of Oxford, where he served until his retirement and election to emeritus status in 1993.

Throughout these years he also led a very active and creative organisational and administrative life, serving on the MRC clinical endocrinology committee and chairing its grants committee in the 1970s and as a member of the General Medical Council and the General Dental Council. He gave much time and thought to the development of the research programme of the British Diabetic Association, chairing its research committee through the 1970s and introducing the novel system of five-year group support grants, which catalysed much new activity in clinical research and basic science connected with diabetes. As a member of the DHSS committee on medical aspects of food policy (COMA) from 1981, he followed his one-time chief, Sir Frank Young, and chaired its not quite unanimous second panel on diet and cardiovascular disease which put an authoritative and official stamp on the national nutritional advice to reduce the fat and increase the proportion of unrefined carbohydrate in the diet.

His academic accomplishments were recognised, not only by his succession of appointments to positions of importance and influence but also by the award of prestigious named lectureships and prizes, which included the Banting lecture of the British Diabetic Association, the first Minkowski lectureship of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes, the Humphrey Davy Rolleston lecture of the College, the CIBA lecture and medal of the Biochemical Society and the Kroc lecture, San Diego. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1983, serving as its vice-chairman from 1988 to 1989. He was knighted in 1985 and was president of the Biochemical Society from 1995 to 2000. He was a much-valued member of the Rank prize funds nutrition committee from 1983 until his death in 2006.

Philip enjoyed food and drink and welcomed the company of family, friends and colleagues, but he was not an easy person to socialise with. His lofty stature had one looking up to him as much physically as intellectually and his seemingly oratorical style of speech did not readily lend itself to small talk. He was diligent at the lab bench, ever ready with suggestions and solutions for problems. Those who had the privileged experience of working in his department regarded him as much with affection as with awe. At scientific meetings he relished reasoned argument and gave little quarter, assembling his case seemingly effortlessly – even offhandedly – and delivering it in quite characteristic magisterially rolling cadences which brooked little challenge. His rigour and comprehensiveness in assembly and presentation were the counterpart of a lively scientific imagination which he shared with generosity and humour, giving warm encouragement to those he thought were making real effort. He probably failed to recognise his somewhat forbidding aspect and was unaware of the disgruntled and sometimes crestfallen feelings of the victims of his intellectual bravura. In committee, he could be a doughty opponent, a welcome ally and a masterly chairman with the knack of foreclosing unproductive argument. At that, the weightiest debate could be suddenly relieved by an almost mischievous humour, at its liveliest when aimed at the ridiculous.

The diabetes world rightly regarded him as one of its leading exponents of the biochemistry of the disorder. His formal lectures were models of clarity, but his assumptions of a certain basic knowledge of the biochemistry of intermediary metabolism among the clinicians in his audience were sometimes over-generous. After one seminar he gave to interested clinicians seeking an update on the disturbed biochemistry of diabetes, David Pyke [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XI, p.461] pithily described him as a great shepherd but one who had got a bit ahead of his flock. Frustrated by what he considered to be the unending discussions among the epidemiologists on where to set the diagnostic levels of blood glucose to define diabetes, Philip Randle remarked from the chair that he personally had no difficulty in deciding who had diabetes. If he wanted to do work on diabetic blood, he said, he just sent his assistant to the clinic to take some.

Philip took great pleasure from his family life and with his wife Elizabeth (née Harrison), whom he married in 1952, mourned the early death of their only son, Peter, but cherished the company of his three daughters, Susan, Sally and Rosalind. He and Elizabeth took many world trips together, usually when he was invited to give a keynote speech at a meeting in some faraway, occasionally exotic, surroundings, an experience they both relished. Such was his stature that he was able to persuade British Airways to keep him the seat by the emergency exit for its extra few inches of legroom. His wife’s death in 2004, followed a year later by the loss of their daughter, Susan, from breast cancer were hard blows to bear and life had lost much of its savour.

He will be missed in the world of science and medicine for his wise, well-informed, sometimes provocative comment, delivered with characteristic sonority, often with a humorous sting in the tail. His close colleagues will miss the warm and unstinting support he gave them in their work and careers. We shall all miss the familiar sight of Philip, in the interval at the meeting, towering above the throng, engaged in earnest conversation and with an amiable smile never far from his lips.

Sir Harold Keen

[The Daily Telegraph 10 Oct 2006; The Times 7 Nov 2006; The Independent 2 Dec 2006; The Lancet 2006,368,1644]

(Volume XII, page web)

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