Lives of the fellows

Derek Raymond Bangham

b.19 September 1924 d.2 January 2008
BSc Lond MB BS(1948) MRCP(1975) FRCP(1981)

Derek Bangham was a leading authority and exponent of biological standardisation. From 1961 to 1973, he was director of the division of biological standards in the Medical Research Council’s National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) in Mill Hill, London. The rapid growth of the division under his direction led to the formation of the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control in 1972.

Derek was born in Manchester, the second of three children of Donald Hugh Bangham, an academic physical chemist, and Edith née Kerby. He was educated at the Downs School in Malvern, where he was taught briefly by W H Auden, and at Bryanston School. For 10 years from 1926, the family was based in Egypt, where his father, as chair of the department of physical and inorganic chemistry, established the newly-founded faculty of science in the University of Cairo. These early experiences left Bangham with a love of travel which he never lost. His brother Alec Bangham [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web] was the discoverer of liposomes.

During the Second World War, a diagnosis of tuberculosis precluded Derek from active service, and he went to King’s College London to read biological sciences. As a student, he kept fire watch at night with James Gowans (later Sir James), who recalled a large gap between the roofs of two buildings from which they kept watch, which only Bangham had the nerve to jump across, and which became known as ‘Bangham’s leap’.

After completing his BSc at King’s College, Bangham became a clinical student at a medical school in London. But after only the first week of the course, dismayed by the lack of scientific interest and rigour among the staff, he approached University College Hospital Medical School, which had a very strong scientific reputation, and persuaded the dean to allow him to join as a clinical student. On qualifying in 1948, he was not immediately appointed to the house job that he wanted with the neurologist Francis Walshe (later Sir Francis) [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.448], so he took a post for six months as a medical officer for a mining company in the Gold Coast (now Ghana), before returning to take up the house job with Walshe.

In 1952, Bangham left medical practice to join the division of parasitology, then directed by Frank Hawking [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.215], in the National Institute for Medical Research. He carried out research on maternofetal transfer of immunoglobulins which was well recognised and widely cited, but it was not until he was asked to join the division of biological standards that he found his true niche.

It is frequently impossible to measure the potency or effectiveness of medicines, especially biological products, simply by measuring their mass or other physical characteristics. This difficulty arises from the complexity of both the therapeutic substance itself and its effects on the body. For this reason, it is essential to devise a biologically relevant assay to quantify the effects of the medicine, and to make a stable reference preparation of the substance, of known potency, which can be used to measure the activity of the medicine both for therapy and for further research. In the absence of such a biological standard, a meaningful comparison cannot be made between therapeutic preparations or the results of different experiments. The creation of a biological standard therefore requires a deep knowledge of the nature and the physiological actions of the substance, such as an antibiotic or hormone. The huge advances in synthetic chemistry and molecular biology in the second half of the 20th century changed the character of much of the work in biological standardisation, but the underlying principles remain unaltered.

Bangham joined the division of biological standards in 1955, and became director in 1961. He recruited a number of highly able scientists from a wide range of fields, and in addition there was a constant stream of visiting workers from throughout the world. Under Bangham’s direction the division grew steadily in size and influence. In 1972, by which time it could no longer be accommodated in the National Institute for Medical Research, the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control was formed, initially occupying the former premises of the NIMR in Hampstead, London. Bangham declined to stand for election to the directorship of the new institute, because he wished to remain more closely involved with research, especially in endocrinology, and from 1972 to his retirement in 1986 he directed the division of hormones.

From 1958 to 1985, Bangham played a central part in the World Health Organization’s European committee on biological standardization, which served as the outlet and mouthpiece of much of the work done by the division of biological standards and later the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control. He also served for many years on the committees of the European pharmacopoeia and the British Pharmacopoeia Commission.

During this period the division of biological standards was responsible for the underlying research and the subsequent establishment of a large number of international biological standards for therapeutic substances, including antibiotics, hormones, vitamins, blood clotting factors, pyrogens and, later, synthetic peptides and products from recombinant molecular biological technology.

The principles underlying biological standardisation are logical, strong, and may now seem unarguable, but in the 1950s and 1960s the principles were not widely recognised or accepted. Bangham promulgated the case with tireless scientific and diplomatic advocacy, and his work did much to establish the leading position that the UK still plays in the field. It was the perfect niche for Bangham because it gave full rein to his particular blend of principled idealism and intense practicality. In 1999, Bangham wrote a short history of biological standardisation (A history of biological standardization: the characterization and measurement of complex molecules important in clinical and research medicine: contributions from the UK 1900-1995: what, why, how, where and by whom: a personal account London, published with the assistance of the Society for Endocrinology). This account amply illustrates his lucid and elegant style of writing, and his wit.

His contributions to medicine were recognised by the award of the first silver plate of the Society for Endocrinology in 1986 for his ‘distinguished contribution to British endocrinology’ and his election to the fellowship of the Royal College of Physicians in 1981. He was particularly delighted by the award of his FRCP, and was deeply gratified by the recognition that his lifetime’s work in research had contributed to the advance of clinical medicine.

On retirement in 1986, Bangham was able to resume his lifelong passions for travel, music – especially Bach and late Mozart operas – woodworking and photography. But his greatest preoccupation was painting, with which he had experimented in his twenties, and which he restarted at the instigation of his artist son Humphrey. He was a keen member of the Medical Art Society and exhibited works at the Royal College of Physicians.

Bangham was survived by his wife Alison, the daughter of Sir Charles Robert Harington [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.222], whom he married in 1952, four children and seven grandchildren.

Charles R M Bangham

[The Times 22 April 2008; MRC Network News May/June 2008, p.18]

(Volume XII, page web)

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