Lives of the fellows

David Grahame-Smith

b.10 May 1933 d.17 June 2011
CBE(1993) MB BS Lond(1956) MRCS LRCP(1956) MRCP(1958) PhD(1966) FRCP(1972)

David Grahame Grahame-Smith was Rhodes professor of clinical pharmacology at Oxford University. Acknowledged to be one of the UK’s leading clinical pharmacologists, his work on the pharmacology of the neurotransmitter serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine) was to lead to vastly increased understanding of its role in triggering clinical depression and the tumours that cause the carcinoid syndrome.

Born in Leicester, he was the son of George Edward Smith, a wholesale fruit merchant, and his wife Constance Alexandra née Walsom whose father, Edward James, was a bootmaker. Educated at Wyggeston Grammar School for Boys, he studied medicine at London University and St Mary’s Hospital. After qualifying in 1956, he did house jobs at St Mary’s and, finding there were four other ‘David Smith’s on the switchboard, changed his surname to Grahame-Smith. He then did his National Service in the RAMC for three years.

He returned to St Mary’s in 1960 to work with Albert Neuberger [Munk’s Roll, Vol.X, p.362], who was the founder of glycoprotein research. It during this time, while working for his PhD, that he identified the enzyme that catalyses the rate-limiting step in the synthesis of serotonin. During the early 1960s he won two Royal College of Physicians research scholarships and one from the Wellcome Trust. Through the epidemiologist, Geoffrey Rose [Munk’s Roll, Vol. IX, p.451], Grahame-Smith came to the attention of Sir Stanley Peart who was impressed by his diagnostic abilities and took him on as a research fellow. It was Peart who suggested that he investigate the carcinoid syndrome and the monograph that he published on the topic The carcinoid syndrome (London, Heinemann Medical, 1942) was to remain the standard reference on the subject for many years.

On being awarded a Medical Research Council (MRC) travelling fellowship in 1966, he went for a year to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, to work with Grant Liddle [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.314], Bill Butcher and Earl Sutherland and investigate the role of cyclic AMP in steroidogenesis.

Following his time in the US, he became senior lecturer in clinical pharmacology and therapeutics and honorary consultant physician at St Mary’s and stayed there from 1967 to 1971. It was at this time that the MRC decided to establish a unit of clinical pharmacology in Oxford and he was the obvious candidate to be its director. Appointed Rhodes professor of pharmacology in 1972, the unit, situated on the first floor of the old Radcliffe Infirmary, went from strength to strength under his talented and enthusiastic leadership. Many young scientists trained there and achieved future eminence including two future presidents of the British Pharmacological Society and two presidents of the British Association of Psychopharmacology. The large volume of scientific papers published covered not only serotonin and psychopharmacology, but topics such as the pharmacology of drugs in different medical disciplines such as cardiology and cancer and the physiology and pharmacology of transmembrane ion transport.

A prolific writer, he published 235 scientific papers mostly on clinical pharmacology and neuropharmacology, of which the most highly cited was referenced 613 times. With J K Aronson he wrote The Oxford textbook of clinical pharmacology and drug therapy (Oxford, University Press, 1984). He also contributed many ‘quirky’ cartoons to the journal World Medicine and provided much amusement to his colleagues by his letters to the Lancet covering incidents such as an encounter with Beethoven’s cleaning lady (Lancet, 1993, 342, 1315).

When he reached 60, the MRC’s normal retirement age, the MRC unit closed but he continued in his university role until 2000, part funded by SmithKline Beecham. Both within the university and outside his influence was felt. He was a fellow, and later vice-president, of Corpus Christi College, Oxford. A member of the university’s Clinical Medical Board, he wrote somewhat wryly ‘I find myself on a number of university committees. Universities do not seem to run themselves, and I cannot work out, whether as a result of these committees, the university performs better than it would if anarchy prevailed. I fear it would be a close run thing.’

A member of the Committee on the Safety of Medicines (now the Commission on Human Medicine) from 1975 to 1986, he also chaired its safety, efficacy and adverse reactions subcommittee and two of its influential working parties. He was the founding chairman of the government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, and, an enthusiastic member of the British Pharmacological Society, was one time editor in chief of the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology. Among several prestigious awards he was given were the Anna Monika Stiftung Prize for Studies in Depression (with A R Green, 1977) and the British Association of Psychopharmacology’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002. He was appointed CBE in 1993.

An exuberant and witty man, he found time for an eccentric assortment of pastimes – best summed up in his own words ‘when I am doing nothing, out horse-riding, painting, walking, swimming, at the theatre, snoozing, playing the jazz piano in Dark Blues, tap-dancing, spending time with my family or just wondering, 5HT is always in my brain and not far from my mind.’

In 1957 he married Kathryn Frances née Beetham, who was the daughter of Francis Robin Beetham, a medical practitioner. When he died of liver cancer, he was survived by Kathryn and their two sons, Harvey Neil, who is a GP in Ipswich and Harry.

RCP editor

[British Association for Psychopharmacology lifetime achievement awards; BMJ 2011 343 6378; Br J Clin Pharmacol 2011 73 830-2; Oxford Medical School Gazette 1995 45 16-7 – all accessed 2 September 2015]

(Volume XII, page web)

<< Back to List