Lives of the fellows

John Archibald Browne (Sir) Gray

b.30 March 1918 d.4 January 2011
BA Cantab(1939) MB BChir(1942) ScD(1962) FRS(1972) FRCP(1974) Hon DSc Exeter(1985) FIBiol

Sir John Archibald Browne Gray was professor of physiology at University College London and secretary of the Medical Research Council (MRC). Born in London, his father was Sir Archibald Montague Henry Gray [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.206], an eminent dermatologist, and his mother was Elsie née Cooper, the daughter of Frederick Bernard, a solicitor. Educated at Cheltenham College, he studied medicine at Clare College, Cambridge and University College Hospital (UCH) in London.

After house jobs at UCH, he joined the MRC’s research unit at the Tank Gunnery School in Lulworth, Dorset, in 1943, and took part in research on the battle conditions faced by tank crews. The following year he transferred to the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) in Hampstead to do naval research and then joined the Royal Navy and served as a surgeon-lieutenant in the Pacific. During his service he continued to research the toxic effects of gases inside tanks and naval gun turrets and the energy output needed to fire the guns. On concluding that certain tasks required the physique of a trained athlete, he was able to make modifications to the equipment and adjustments to the duty rota which greatly improved conditions for the gun crews.

On demobilisation in 1946, he returned to the NIMR and, for the next six years continued his researches into neurophysiology. In 1952 he was appointed reader in physiology at University College London and was a professor from 1959 to 1966. While there he served as dean of the faculty of science for a time and continued his work on the physiology of sensory nervous systems and receptors and on information coding.

In 1966 he became second secretary of the MRC and, on the retirement of Sir Harold Himsworth, succeeded him as secretary. He took over the post at an interesting time when the benefits and future of the research councils were being hotly debated. While agreeing that issues of immediate social relevance needed to be investigated, he emphatically believed in the long term benefits of fundamental medical research. With diminishing funding and resources, he helped the MRC to restructure its staffing levels and reorganise its establishments to accommodate these restrictions.

When a new committee designed to promote international collaboration on medical research was established in Brussels, following the UK’s accession to the European Community, Gray became its first chairman. He was made a fellow of the Royal Society in 1972 and knighted in 1973.

On his retirement from the MRC in 1977, he became a member of the MRC external scientific staff at the Marine Biological Association Laboratories in Plymouth. There he resumed his neurophysiological research where one of his projects was to investigate the stimuli that excite the ear and lateral-line receptors in fish such as the herring in order to discover how inputs from the two organs interact in the brain.

Outside neurophysiology, he enjoyed painting, sailing and tennis.

In 1946, he married Vera Kathleen née Mares whose father, Charles, manufactured artist’s brushes. They were married for 64 years and Vera predeceased him in 2010. He was survived by their daughter and son, Peter, and their grandchildren.

RCP editor

[Clare College Alumni; The Telegraph]

(Volume XII, page web)

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