Lives of the fellows

Robert Humphrey Marten

b.6 January 1921 d.13 October 2010
BA Oxon(1942) BM BCh(1944) MRCP(1949) FRCP(1968)

Robert Humphrey Marten (known as ‘Bob’) was a consultant dermatologist at King’s College Hospital, London, from 1958 to 1981. He came from an old and distinguished family, which came to note in the reign of James I, when Sir Henry Marten sat on the commission to decide whether George Abbot, Archbishop of Canterbury, should be deprived of his see for accidentally killing a keeper at a deer-hunt. His son, also Sir Henry, was a zealous Parliamentarian in the Civil War and one of the ‘regicides’ who signed Charles I’s death warrant. Bob’s father, also Robert Humphrey Marten, was an export manager for Staveley Coal and Iron Ltd, which is why Bob was born in Cairo. His mother was Josephine Jean née McFarlane. There were also several medical connections in the family: his grandfather, another Robert Humphrey Marten, was a physician in Adelaide; his uncle, Sir Leonard Lindon, was president of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons; and another uncle, H Grainger, was a GP in Leatherhead.

Bob was educated at Stowe, where he was distinguished not only academically but on the games field. He went on to Trinity College, Oxford, in 1939 to read medicine, and there won blues in cricket and squash. With typical modesty he would point out that these were wartime blues (from a depleted student body). He completed his training at the Middlesex and qualified in 1944. From 1945 to 1948, he was in the Royal Army Medical Corps. He went to India as a medical officer and then to Kenya.

When he came back to England, he passed his MRCP in 1949. He then worked for a while in general practice in Oxfordshire, but felt he needed more intellectual challenge. He was introduced to the dermatologist Renwick Vickers [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.544] and was appointed as a registrar in dermatology at Sheffield in 1951. He was then a senior registrar at the Middlesex and then at King’s College Hospital. In 1957, he was appointed as a consultant to the Royal Northern Hospital and in 1958 to King’s College Hospital.

While at Sheffield he collected a series of 77 cases of lupus erythematosus (LE) and published the clinical and haematological findings (AMA Arch Derm. 1956 Jan;73[1]:1-14), with a subsequent five-year follow-up; in fact he thought for a while of devoting himself entirely to the study of LE.

At King’s he worked with D I Williams [Munk’s Roll, Vol.X, p.521] and Imrich Sarkany [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web] on griseofulvin, which had just been produced by Glaxo, for whom D I Williams was a medical consultant. They published the first report of the clinical effects of this important drug in The Lancet in 1958 (Lancet. 1958 Dec 6;2[7058]:1212-3), with further clinical reports the next year. This drug of course revolutionised the management of fungus infections, especially of the scalp, which was a desperate problem and had caused many children to miss their education: the only treatment had been depilation with thallium or radiotherapy, of which we still see the late sequelae of skin cancers. Thanks to griseofulvin the usual endemic species of fungus Microsporum audouinii became virtually extinct in a few years.

Bob was a first-class clinical dermatologist and made many other important contributions. In 1958, he published with Charles Calnan a series of cases of contact allergy to nylon hair-nets (Br Med J. 1958 Aug 30;2[5095]:544-5), presumably caused by the dyes, which he recognised by the characteristic distribution of the dermatitis. In the same year he presented the first case of lichen aureus to the St John’s Dermatological Society. From 1960 onwards the clinics at King’s were given an additional interest by the arrival of many black patients from the West Indies and subsequently from West Africa. Many eminent dermatologists were baffled by these patients, relying for diagnosis on the subtle variations of colour seen in white skin, and Bob was in great demand to help them. He also recognised many racial variations in skin conditions and in physical signs: for example, he would point out that black children get atopic eczema affecting the extensor aspect of the limbs rather than the flexures and often have micropapular lesions resembling lichen nitidus, which caused much confusion. In 1974 he and his colleagues wrote up a series of cases of ‘an unusual papular and acneiform facial eruption in the negro child’ (Br J Dermatol. 1974 Oct;91[4]:435-8), subsequently reported under other names.

Bob was a very kind and charming man, with a rare humility which endeared him to friends, colleagues and patients alike. Long after his retirement from King’s and even after he reached 70 he maintained a large private practice of devoted patients. When they speak of him they all say the same thing: he was a gentleman. This refers not just to his background and education, but to his thoughtful, considerate attitude to people and his modesty. His registrars remember with gratitude the wonderful clinical training that he gave us.

Bob was married twice: in 1945 to Margaret, by whom he had a son (Tim) and a daughter (Pip), and in 1974 to Angela, so that he had a large extended family of stepchildren, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. In his retirement he was a keen golfer and always enjoyed watching sport on television. His last years were clouded by memory loss, but he kept his amiable personality and was looked after devotedly by Angela. He died following a stroke.

Andrew Pembroke

(Volume XII, page web)

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