Lives of the fellows

Alec Douglas Bangham

b.10 November 1921 d.9 March 2010
MRCS LRCP(1944) MB BS Lond(1946) MD(1965) FRS(1977) FRCP(1997)

Alec Douglas Bangham was leading haematologist who could be described as the father of liposomes. He was senior principal scientific officer at the Agricultural Research Council’s Institute of Animal Physiology (IAP) at the University of Cambridge. Born in Rusholme, Manchester, his father, Donald Hugh Bangham, was a surface chemist who died prematurely while director of research at the British Coal Utilisation Research Association. His mother, Edith née Kerby, had been born in 1892 in St Petersburg, Russia, where her father was the managing director of the New Waterworks Company. She acted as an interpreter for Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst when she met General Maria Bochkareva of the First Women’s Battalion of Death. His brother, Derek Raymond [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web], also became a physician and was a leading exponent of biological standardisation. As was Alec’s, Derek’s wife was a medical practitioner and he was proud to point out that he was related to all seven other ‘Banghams’ and three ‘Reiss’s’ in the Medical Directory.

Five years after he was born, his father was appointed dean of the faculty of science at Cairo University and his school years were punctuated by temporary homes or commutes to Egypt. From 1929 to 1935 he attended the Downs, a Quaker preparatory school, although he suspected his father was an atheist. While there he was taught English by W H Auden in his last two years and was given five cigarettes for taking a photograph of the poet and his ‘wife of the day’. With Fred Sanger, the future twice-Nobel laureate, who was a fellow pupil at Downs, he then finished his education at Bryanston School.

Having read The microbe hunters by Paul Henry de Kruif (New York, Harcourt, brace, 1926) he was inspired to study medicine. Lacking Latin, he could not apply to Oxbridge but he managed to get a place at University College London (UCL) when he finally passed French at his third attempt. When he qualified in 1946 he became a casualty officer at Addenbrooke’s Hospital. He recalled that penicillin was, at that time, only available to military personal, and that he used to collect urine from the soldiers and send it to the biochemistry department to be re-extracted for civilians.

He did his National Service in the RAMC, serving from 1948 to 1949. Initially he was posted to Palestine where, as a captain, he was in charge of the pathology department at the Bir Jacob British Military Hospital. There he had the depressing task of carrying out post-mortems on soldiers killed in action. He then moved to Egypt, to the Central Middle East Pathology Laboratory at Fayed and, during this time, he published a joint paper on typhoid carrier rates among Egyptian food handlers.

On demobilisation he was awarded a grant at UCL by Sir Roy Cameron [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.80] to study the effects of cortisone on wound healing. In 1952 he was recruited by Ivan de Burgh Daly [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.135] to be one of the first on the staff of the newly established IAP at Babraham, near Cambridge. He worked there for 30 years becoming the first principal scientific officer of the pathology department. He started, and indeed continued, with a small laboratory of devoted staff and worked initially on species definition of bovine and equine haemoglobins.

He developed an interest in cell membranes in the 1950s but it was to be 10 years before he made his key discovery that phospholipid molecules dispersed in water could organise themselves into double layers consisting of sets of closed membranes resembling real cell membranes. He saw the potential for using these closed membranes for delivering drugs and other materials to cells. In 1965 he published, with Jeff Watkins and Malcolm Standish, ‘Diffusion of univalent ions across the lamellae of swollen phospholipids’ (J Mol Biol 1965, 13, 238-52) which was the foundation of the ‘liposome industry’. The paper was recognised as a ‘citation classic’ in Current contents in 1989. At first Bangham called these new structures, the discovery of which he thought was the cell science equivalent of the double helix in genetics, ‘multilamellar smetic mesophases’ or ‘Banghasomes’ but an American physician with whom he was working, Gerald Weissmann, suggested ‘liposomes’ and that was universally accepted. The eventual impact of this discovery was to generate thousands of scientific papers, a succession of patents, a new journal, an international society, and numerous conferences. He was to see liposomes used to treat chronic human diseases such as cancer or vascular disorders by delivering toxic drugs to their targets and healthy genes when needed.

Other important research areas for him developed from his interest in the physicochemical properties of membranes and cell surfaces, for example blood clotting and also the mechanisms of anaesthesia. In the 1970s he worked with Colin Morley at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge on trying to develop a surfactant for infants suffering from respiratory distress syndrome. Morley had produced a successful material using sheep’s lungs which he knew would not be permitted to be used on babies and Bangham managed to produce a synthetic form using two phospholipids, the resulting product, an artificial lung expanding compound known as ‘ALEC’, proved to halve mortality in premature babies.

In 1977 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society and in 1981, a fellow of UCL. Gerald Weissmann said of him that ‘He combined the personality of an English country gentleman with the mind of a European intellectual. A truly original mind.’

He retired in 1982 but continued researching and publishing and was said to be ‘still bursting with ideas until the end’. Latterly he was investigating the volatile organic compounds that he believed protected a foetus from rejection by its mother and might be used to protect donor organs after transplantation. He published a paper on the topic ‘Invisibility of tissues and the mother/foetus paradox: an hypothesis’ (J Liposome Res, 2008, 18, 1-3) when he was 87 years old. Annoyed that transplant surgeons were not taking him seriously, he – in what a colleague described as ‘a surreal moment’ – invited a group of researchers to his home to discuss his theory the night before he died.

From his childhood onwards, he had been a keen photographer and, starting with the Auden portrait from his schooldays, he left a wonderful archive of photographs – including a print of the waterworks in St Petersburg managed by his grandfather that he secretly took in 1972. He enjoyed working on home improvements and was a highly competitive gardener, a friend commenting that he was generous with the produce but keen to always grow the biggest cabbage etc. Other passions were making facsimiles of classical clarinet mouthpieces and restoring original Caucasian rugs.

In 1943 he married Rosalind Barbara (‘Ros’) née Reiss who qualified in medicine from King’s College, London, and practiced as a GP. She was the daughter of Celia and Captain Richard Reiss, who was chairman of the Garden Cities and Town Planning Association of Great Britain and a co-founder of Welwyn Garden City. Ros predeceased him by a few months and he was survived by their daughter, Janet, an artist married to the biological scientist Paul Edwards; their sons, James Andrew, a professor of computer science at the University of East Anglia, Oliver Butts, a management consultant, and Daniel Hugh, a clarinet maker; and 10 grandchildren.

RCP editor

[The Guardian; The Lancet; Biographical memoirs of fellows of the Royal Society – all accessed 10 June 2015.]

(Volume XII, page web)

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