Lives of the fellows

Humphrey Edward Melville Kay

b.19 October 1923 d.20 October 2009
MB BS Lond(1945) MRCS, LRCP(1945) MD(1950) MRCP(1949) FRCPath(1968) FRCP(1970)

Humphrey Edward Melville Kay was an early pioneer in the diagnosis and treatment of leukaemia. When he first began working at the Royal Marsden Hospital (RMH) as a consultant in haematology in 1956, the disease was usually fatal within a few weeks but, by the mid-1980s, largely due to his work, many children and an increasing number of young adults were being cured.

Born in Croyden, he was the son of a clergyman, Arnold Innes King, and his wife, Winifred Julia née Cox, whose father, Edward Webster Cox, was a publisher. When he was three months old his mother, a missionary doctor, took him back to Lahore in India to rejoin his father in the family home. His elder sister, Fran, recalled that a brass band played to celebrate his arrival, as the Memsahib, up until that time had only had two girls. He was related by marriage to Sir Ernest Laurence Kennaway [Munk’s Roll, Vol.V, p.225], who had been a previous director of the RMH and had carried out important research into carcinogens.

The family returned to the UK when he was four and he attended the Downs Preparatory School in Colwall, Worcestershire, where he was taught English by the poet, W H Auden. He then went to Bryanston School in Dorset and it was while he was there that he decided to study medicine. In 1941, with a fellow pupil, he undertook the 50 mile bicycle ride into Southampton to take his preliminary examination arriving during one of the heaviest bombing raids of the Second World War. The pair spent the night hiding downstairs under a collapsed roof and found the examination rooms had no gas or electricity which limited their practical examinations. However they both passed and he qualified in 1945, having trained at London University and St Thomas’s Hospital Medical School. He then did house jobs at St Thomas’s before joining the RAFVR in 1947 to do his National Service.

He served in Lincolnshire and then in Aden which he later recalled as ‘a happy peaceful place, where one learned to avoid amoebic dysentery; to play tennis through the hot season; to ride a camel; and to admire the starry skies with a limited range of classical music on 78s with a wind-up player’. On demobilisation he returned to St Thomas’s and spent six years in a range of junior appointments in pathology.

In 1956 he moved to the RMH as a haematologist and consultant clinical pathologist. Unsure whether to take the job, he decided to do so when his daughter got a place at an adjacent school. Thinking that he might remain in post for a year or two, he stayed for 28 years until his retirement in 1984. He understood the need to investigate the biology of leukaemia conducting ground-breaking research into the immunological and chromosomal characteristics of leukaemia cells. In 1963 he took the lead in planning and fund raising for an isolation ward for immune suppressed leukaemia patients at the RMH. Two years later, when it opened, the ward was so successful that a much larger ward became necessary and was built with the help of a bequest from the music hall entertainer Bud Flanagan who had lost his son to leukaemia, in 1973. It was in this ward that Europe’s first successful bone marrow transplant took place.

During his time at the RMH, Kay also acted as secretary to the Medical Research Council’s leukaemia trials from 1968 to 1984, and played a key part in bringing experts in the field together to agree the first international protocols for the treatment of childhood leukaemia. He was appointed professor of haematology in 1982, retiring two years later as an emeritus professor. The author of more than 100 papers on leukaemia and other blood disorders, and contributor of many chapters in books, he was also editor of the Journal of Clinical Pathology from 1972 to 1980.

Having been interested in natural history since he was a child, he took it up enthusiastically when he retired. From 1983 to 1996, he was a member of council of the Wiltshire Trust for Nature Conservation, (later the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust) and initiated a highly successful fund raising sponsored walk from Avebury to Stonehenge. A volunteer warden at two sites near his home, he also represented the trust on the government’s badger tuberculosis committee although his ‘evidence based’ approach caused him to vacillate between opposing views. In 1996 he was awarded the Christopher Cadbury medal of the wildlife trusts for services to conservation. He published A survey of Wiltshire hedgehogs (2002).

Described by some as having the image of a ‘mad professor’, he was a tall, elegant man, often to be seen in a large floppy hat and an elaborate bow tie. An ex-colleague described him casually taking a detour, while driving back to London, in order to run over some pheasants to cook for dinner. Indeed his dinner parties, at his Brompton Road flat in London, were legendary and he fostered his ‘old fashioned’ image by requiring the ladies to withdraw after the meal. A keen gardener, he also had a passion for opera and ballet and was an accomplished musician. He wrote poetry and published a book of serious and humorous verses Poems polymorphic (2002) in which he included a parody of the Flanders and Swan classic The hippopotamus song. Retitled The haematologist’s song and replacing the refrain of ‘mud, mud glorious mud’ by the words ‘blood, blood glorious blood’, he often sang it at conferences to entertain his colleagues.

In 1950 he married April Grace Lavinia née Powelett, whose father, Armand Temple Powlelett, was a gentleman farmer. She became a consultant rheumatologist at Guy’s Hospital. April predeceased him in 1990 and he married Sallie Diana Perry née Charlton in 1996. Sallie was the daughter of Rowland Charlton, a headmaster, and the widow of the artist, Roy Perry. At the time of his death his son, James, was a GP in Devizes and one of his daughters, also a GP, was working as a doctor in Zimbabwe. Known to have had heart problems, he was found dead in his car after a minor collision with a telegraph pole in Marlborough, Wiltshire. He was survived by Sallie; his children by his first marriage, Ginny, Sarah and James; his stepson and stepdaughter; 12 grandchildren and a recently born great-grandson.

RCP editor

[The Guardian www.theguardian.com/science/2009/nov/05/humphrey-kay-obituary; BMJ 2010 340 5685 www.bmj.com/content/340/bmj.b5685; The Telegraph www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/medicine-obituaries/6729112/Professor-Humphrey-Kay.html; The Independent www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/professor-humphrey-kay-haematologist-who-revolutionised-the-treatment-of-leukaemia-1850450.html; The Wiltshire Gazette and Herald www.gazetteandherald.co.uk/obituaries/4696042.Humphrey_Kay; Oxford Dictionary of National Biography www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/101892 - all accessed 10 March 2015]

(Volume XII, page web)

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