Lives of the fellows

Ian Alexander (Sir) McGregor

b.26 August 1922 d.1 February 2007
KT(1982) CBE(1968) OBE(1959) LRCPE LRCSE LRFPSG(1945) DTM&H(1949) MRCP(1962) FRCP(1967) FFCM(1972) FRS(1981) Hon LLD Aberd(1983) Hon DSc Glasg(1984) Hon FRCPS Glasg(1984)

Sir Ian McGregor was director of the Medical Research Council Laboratories in the Gambia for 22 years. It was during his tenure that the MRC laboratories in the Gambia acquired their highly regarded international status as one of the world's premier scientific institutions for academic tropical research. He was one of the last remaining scientists with a mastery of all aspects of malaria, whether historical, medical, parasitological or entomological.

McGregor was born into a Glasgow tailoring family with a high regard for education. From Rutherglen Academy he went to St Mungo's College and thence to Glasgow Royal Infirmary. As a schoolboy Ian preferred the sports field to the classroom, but when he started his medical studies he became a high-flying student, earning class medals in anatomy, physiology, surgery, obstetrics and gynaecology and public health.

McGregor's career in tropical medicine started when he was conscripted to the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1946 and posted to Egypt and then to Palestine and Transjordan, where he was told that he was to be trained as a malariologist – a term that he had never heard – at the Middle East School of Hygiene in Gaza. During his spell in the Army he was mentioned in despatches.

When he was demobbed in 1948 he took the diploma course in tropical medicine at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, where he was one of the very few students paying their own tuition fees. One of his tutors was B S Platt, who had persuaded the Colonial Office and the Medical Research Council (MRC) to support a small field station in Fajara, the Gambia, West Africa. Platt was interested in studying the relationship between nutrition and parasitic diseases. He recruited Ian to carry out a base line survey on three inland villages – Keneba, Manduar and Jali on the basis of high enlarged spleen rates in children, indicating a high prevalence of malaria. Platt's sole and unusual instruction was: "Come back when you have something interesting to tell me." The survey results were recorded in McGregor's first scientific paper in 1952, 'A health, nutrition and parasitological survey in a rural village (Keneba) in west Kiang, Gambia', published in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. At the time the only accommodation in Keneba was a mudblock house and the laboratory was a table with a plastic top, a microscope and 'field stains' for blood films located in the same room that also served as the dining and sitting room.

In the 1950s, Sir Landsborough Thomson, the MRC's administrative head, sent Joan Small, one of his staff, to the Gambia to sort out the book-keeping. She and Ian fell in love and married in 1954. Joan's support was integral to many aspects of his scientific work, including field logistics, secretarial work, administration and cataloguing and remained so for the rest of Ian's brilliant professional career.

Ian's scientific contributions centred on his detailed epidemiological, clinical and immunological studies. In a malaria cohort study of children followed up weekly from birth until they reached five years of age, he and his team, of whom I was one, conclusively demonstrated that the group of children unprotected from malaria had significantly higher gamma-globulin levels than a similar group of children given weekly antimalarial chemoprophylaxis and that this rise in gamma-globulin was related to the development of malaria immunity.

In collaboration with Sidney Cohen he showed that transfer of the IgG fraction from immune adults into children suffering from malaria eradicated the blood of parasites, proving that antibodies could protect from malaria. This work provided the first indication that it would be possible to develop a malaria vaccine. He was the first to show that in first pregnancies the uterus and placenta are initially immunologically naive to malaria, but that with subsequent pregnancies these organs, too, develop resistance. McGregor's longitudinal studies in Keneba over a period of 20 years are unique and are likely to remain so in Africa. Every year, in February, Ian and Joan, with their team would spend several weeks conducting surveys of nutrition, malaria and other infections with military efficiency and meticulous attention to detail. These surveys established a demographic, anthropometric and health database that is still being used by researchers to this day. It has facilitated an analysis published in Nature in 1997 by A Prentice and is colleagues ('Season of birth predicts mortality in rural Gambia'), linking McGregor's early demographic data on births to adult mortality risk. This has provided unique biological insights into the foetal origins of adult disease. Keneba was the first and prime example of the value of meticulous longitudinal studies to evaluate the relative contributions of climate, nutrition and infection, to overall health.

In 1956 McGregor recommended mass drug administration with diethylcarbamazine as a possible strategy for the control of lymphatic filariasis, 50 years later the Global Control Programme for the elimination of lymphatic filariasis is translating this vision to reality. He maintained throughout his years in the Gambia strong collaborations with UK researchers, including W C Billewicz, A Prentice, A M Thomson and R M Wilson, who are co-authors on many of his almost 200 scientific publications.

In 1980 I invited Ian to join my department of tropical medicine at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. Much to my delight he accepted and spent 14 happy and fruitful years with us. So in an uncanny way our roles were reversed – he was my director in 1954 when I joined his unit in the Gambia, now I was 'de jure', though certainly not 'de facto', his boss. He was appointed professorial fellow and we indulged in his friendship, modesty, sense of humour and humanity.

During this period he published with Walter Wernsdorfer his magnum opus, Malaria: principles and practice of malariology (Edinburgh, Churchill Livingstone, 1988), which is the essential reference on the subject. He kept several large freezers full with meticulously cross-referenced sera to previous research surveys. His original punch-card files have been computerised, allowing an analysis in 2006 of how maternal blood groups affect malaria.

For a period of almost 40 years McGregor was a member of the WHO Advisory panel on Malaria. He prepared 21 working papers on different aspects of malaria which were distributed worldwide as documents in the WHO/Mal series. In 1985 he was appointed chairman of the WHO Expert Committee on Malaria. The principal objective of this committee was to explore and recommend how malaria control could best be effected as an integral part of national primary health care systems of countries in which the disease was endemic.

For four years he was served on a US Federal Committee which was concerned with the testing of experimental vaccines against plasmodium falciparum malaria.

He was awarded the Chalmers medal of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine in 1963, the WHO Darling Foundation medal in 1974 for his research on malaria, and the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine Mary Kingsley medal in 1994, the school's highest mark of distinction. He received honorary degrees from the universities of Glasgow and Aberdeen. He was appointed OBE in 1959, CBE in 1968 and knighted in 1982. He was a fellow of the Royal Society of London and Edinburgh and president of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene from 1983 to 1985.

Ian loved fishing, music, watching the migrating birds that fly over the Gambia and tennis. He was dominant at the net, scoring winners with triumphant cheers while Joan did all the running at the baseline; his standard call whenever a ball went passed him was “Yours Joan” and Joan was invariably there getting redder and redder in the face as the game went on.

As a member of the Gambian Caledonian Club his 'Address to a Haggis' on Burns Night was invariably received with acclamation, especially as it was often delivered with a Glaswegian accent.

When he retired to Homington he was active in the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and in his village and church.

Ian will be remembered by all who knew him well with great affection, his sense of humour and trademark laugh. He is survived by his wife Joan and his children, Lesley and Alastair.

H M Gilles

[The Times 14 February 2007; The Independent 14 February 2007; The Guardian 9 March 2007; The Lancet 2007 369 1340; Brit.med.J., 2007 334 1062]

(Volume XII, page web)

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