Lives of the fellows

James Mourilyan Tanner

b.1 August 1920 d.20 August 2010
MB BS Lond(1944) MD Pennsylvania(1944) DPM(1946) PhD(1953) DSc(1957) MRCP(1963) FRCPsych(1971) FRCP(1972)

James Mourilyan (‘Jim’) Tanner undertook pioneering studies into the growth of children and adolescents which, among other things, demonstrated the critical relationship between environment and physical development and he became the world expert in this field. He was best known for his invention of the Tanner scale which measures the scale of sexual development during puberty.

Born in Camberley, Surrey, he was the son of Frederick Courtney Tanner, a lieutenant colonel in the Royal Scots Regiment, and his wife, Ethelwyn Florence Mourilyan, whose father Frederick James Mourilyan, was a director of the Imperial Continental Gas Company. During his youth the family led a peripatetic life due to his father’s military career and he became a boarder at Marlborough College, spending holidays with them in China and Egypt. He had initially thought of taking up the military profession himself but when his older brother, already a soldier, was killed in the early days of the Second World War he decided to take up medicine instead.

Unable to afford Oxbridge, he went to St Mary’s Hospital Medical School on a scholarship which stipulated that he coach the athletics team as he had done at school. In 1940 he won a Rockefeller Foundation scholarship to Pennsylvania University as part of a scheme to help UK medical students finish their studies away from the hazards of war time. He qualified in 1944 and spent nine months in an internship at Johns Hopkins University Hospital before returning to the UK to join the Emergency Medical Service (EMS). Until sometime in 1946 he worked at the wartime Maudsley Hospital, situated in Mill Hill, and the returned prisoner of war rehabilitation unit in Dartford, Kent.

Following his time with the EMS, he was appointed a demonstrator in anatomy at the Oxford University Medical School, working for the famous anatomist and surgeon Sir Wilfred le Gros Clark. It was while he was there that he was asked to initiate a new lecture series on human growth and realised how little had been published on the topic. He obtained a travelling scholarship to return to the US to visit various studies that were already running there and returned determined to initiate something similar in the UK.

In 1948 he was appointed lecturer and senior lecturer in physiology at St Thomas’ Hospital and, eight years later in 1956, was asked to establish a new department of growth and development at London University’s Institute of Child Health (ICH). Here he became lecturer and senior lecturer in growth and development, reader in 1960 and honorary consultant at the Hospital for Sick Children in 1961. Five years later he became the first professor of child health and growth at the University of London.

He had been asked, at the end of his time with Le Gros Clark in Oxford, to undertake a study in child development funded by the Ministry of Health. It was to be based on the occupants of an orphanage in Harpenden, Hertfordshire. Designed originally to measure the effects of malnutrition on growth, Tanner made it into a long term study, weighing, measuring and photographing the same subjects as they matured for several years with his long time collaborator, Reginald Whitehouse. From this work he devised the important ‘Tanner Scale’ which measures sexual maturation in adolescents based on characteristics such as the size of the genitals and the quantity of pubic hair. The data has now been incorporated in a modern growth chart which is used internationally by paediatricians to monitor the pattern of growth of children throughout adolescence. Many of the charts were later published in Growth and development: a book of reference charts: Tanner-Whitehouse standards (Ware, Herts., Castlemead Publications, 1984). It is said that his charts now adorn the walls of general practices and school health clinics throughout the world. One of his most important conclusions was that community-wide data on adult height indicated how a society fostered its youth.

From the 1950s onwards he had been associated with experiments in using human growth hormone and was responsible for selecting the children who would be treated with the hormone, in those days extracted from cadavers. Up to 1,900 children received the treatment from 1959 onwards. As soon as reports were published of patients who had received the substance dying from Creutzfeld-Jakob disease in 1985, he stopped the treatment in spite, apparently, of some wishing to continue regardless. Treatment later resumed using genetically engineered human growth hormone and Tanner believed that although the doctors had acted in good faith at the time, the victims should receive compensation.

The author of over 300 scientific papers and monographs, he also published many influential books including, A history of the study of human growth (Cambridge, University Press, 1981), Foetus into man: physical growth from conception to maturity (London, Open Books, 1978) and, with Phyllis B Eveleth, Worldwide variation in human growth (Cambridge, University Press, 1976) – both the latter two books have now been reissued in second editions.

A founder-member of the Society for the Study of Human Biology, he co-edited its journal for a long time and was also instrumental in founding the International Association of Human Auxology (a term that he himself coined for the study of human growth). In 1977 he had been involving the creation of the main charity in his field, the Child Health Foundation.

A superb athlete as a young man – hence the scholarships at school and university – he would have represented his country as a hurdler in the 1940 Olympic Games had they not been cancelled. Later he enjoyed skiing and golf, which he played well into old age. Other interests were theatre, art and music, and he sang in London choral societies for many years.

While studying in the USA, during the Second World War, he met Bernice Geneva Alture, the daughter of Sigmund Alture, a physician, and they married in 1941. She also qualified in medicine and entered general practice when they settled in the UK. Bernice died in 1991 and the following year he married Gunilla Lindgren, a Swedish scholar and also an expert on auxology, with whom he had been corresponding since the 1970s. He died of a stroke in Wellington, near Taunton, and was also suffering from prostate cancer. Gunilla survived him, together with his daughter from his first marriage, Helen Phillips, a stepson and stepdaughter, Fredrick and Katarina, and three granddaughters, Mary, Sarah and Julia. His son David predeceased him.

RCP editor

[The Telegraph; BMJ 2010 341 5374; New York Times The Guardian; British Humanist Association; Wikipedia - all accessed 26 June 2015; Sunday Times 17 May 1992]

(Volume XII, page web)

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