Lives of the fellows

John Vallance-Owen

b.31 October 1920 d.23 July 2011
BA Cantab(1943) MB BChir(1946) MRCP(1946) MD(1951) FRCP(1962) Hon FRCPI(1970) FRCPath(1971)

John Vallance-Owen had a long and versatile career in medicine as a teacher, diabetes researcher, clinician and academic administrator. His professional life was spent in a succession of notable centres in the British Isles, but it also took him to Malta and latterly to Hong Kong, where he was foundation professor of medicine at the Chinese University.

He was born in Ealing, London, the son of Edwin Augustine Owen, professor of physics at the University of North Wales at Bangor, and Julia May Owen née Vallance, the daughter of a draper. After an early education at Friars, Bangor, Epsom and St John’s College, Cambridge, John trained and qualified in 1946 at the London Hospital, where he served as house physician to Donald Hunter [Munk’s Roll, Vol. VII, p.288] and in junior posts to Henry Souttar, Sir John Parkinson [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.443] and Horace Evans [Munk’s Roll, Vol.V, p.123].

In 1951, he joined the notable Russell Fraser [Munk’s Roll, Vol.X, p.149] endocrinology ménage at the Postgraduate Medical School, Hammersmith Hospital. A decade before the invention of the seminal radioimmunoassay for insulin, John had become one of the small number of determined researchers (which included the likes of Sir Philip Randle [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web], Joe Bornstein and J Juda Groen [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.214]) attempting to bioassay the very low concentrations of the hormone in normal and diabetic human blood. This centred on its stimulation of the glucose uptake of the excised, surviving rat hemidiaphragm, a delicate preparation requiring much skill and paraphernalia! His long and faithful attachment to this technique was driven by his finding that plasma from some patients with diabetes (and from some without) actually suppressed insulin stimulation of the hemidiaphragm, an inhibitory activity that appeared to be associated with the albumin fraction. In an era when diabetes research was dominated by reports of a profusion of blood-borne insulin-inhibitory fractions, the Vallance-Owen ‘synalbumin insulin antagonist’ attracted international attention as a putative causal agent of diabetes and perhaps a contributor to other conditions.

The further exploration of this antagonist claimed most of the rest of his active research career. He took it to the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, in 1955 as a Rockefeller travelling fellow. Intensive work on it continued when, in 1958, he became a consultant physician, senior lecturer and then reader in the department of medicine, King’s College, Newcastle upon Tyne, and in 1966 after his appointment as chair of medicine at Queen’s University Belfast.

Publications on the antagonist continued to appear until the early 1970s, despite the virtually total eclipse of insulin bioassays by the sensitive and specific radioimmunoassay, the recognition of binding antibodies in the blood of insulin treated diabetic patients and failures of others to reproduce some of the findings.

Clinical teaching and Queen’s University administrative duties bulked increasingly large in John’s life during this period and his reflections on the life of the clinical academic were expressed in his inaugural lecture ‘Medical practice, teaching and research’, delivered in 1968 and later published in paperback (Belfast, Queen’s University of Belfast, 1971).

His talent for management and administration was further called upon when, in 1981, following a politically-inspired emigration of doctors from Malta, he accepted the somewhat urgent invitation to become director of Maltese Medical Services and organiser of clinical teaching.

He was approaching retirement when, in 1983, he was invited to become foundation professor of medicine and associate dean of the new Chinese University of Hong Kong. A member of his staff there reports that as director he never held departmental meetings but settled matters ‘face-to-face within his office or along the corridor’. Clinical ward rounds and bedside teaching were regular parts of his academic life in the University Hospital. He succeeded in gaining recognition for the Hong Kong MB BCh by the British General Medical Council, and played an important role in the establishment of the Hong Kong College of Physicians.

Following his formal retirement in 1988, he returned to England. He maintained clinical and academic contacts in an honorary role at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School, as an adviser to the Regional Health Authority, and continued in private practice until 2004, when he finally withdrew to his home near Cambridge.

A jovial and outgoing man, his vigorous physical and sporting activities were little affected by a birth injury of hand and arm, and he played tennis to a high standard. He died aged 90, two years after a stroke which had left him with frustrating dysphasia. He was survived by his wife Renée Audrey Jean née Thornton, their four children (Andrew, Sarah, Kate and Colin), and 11 grandchildren.

Harry Keen

[The Times 29 July 2011; Brit.med.J., 2011 343 5838]

(Volume XII, page web)

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