Lives of the fellows

Hubert Eustace Webb

b.30 May 1927 d.8 November 2010
BM BCh Oxon(1951) MRCP(1954) DM(1961) FRCP(1969) FRCPath(1988) DSc Lond(1990)

Hubert Eustace Webb was professor of neurovirology at St Thomas’, London. He was born in Tonk, Rajputana, India, where his father, Wilfred Francis Webb, was a member of the Political Service of the Indian Army. His mother was Kathleen Leila Houssemayne Du Boulay, the daughter of an Army officer. As was customary at the time, Hughie, as he was known, was sent home to the UK to be educated, first at a preparatory school, and then Winchester and Oxford. He received his clinical education and training at St Thomas’ Hospital, where he was a university scholar from New College.

The most spectacular part of Hughie’s education was his achievement as a sportsman, obtaining four blues – in golf, cricket, squash and racquets. Such were his achievements as a sportsman that a career as an elite athlete was an alternative to medicine. Field Marshal Montgomery was so impressed by Hughie’s captaincy of a cricket match between Winchester and Eton in 1945 that he invited him, with his own son, to visit him in his magnificent schloss in Germany. There he met the Russian general who led the attack on Hitler’s bunker. Subsequently, the two boys went on a sailing trip to Denmark in Monty’s own yacht.

Hughie qualified in 1951 and then held house jobs at St Thomas’. He then took a short-service commission for his National Service and was posted to Singapore, where he worked at the British Military Hospital. There he developed an interest in viral disease that affected the central nervous system (CNS).

At the end of his National Service, he took local release and, from 1957 to 1958, worked with the National Research Council, Washington, based in Kuala Lumpar. He later became a staff member of the Rockefeller Foundation and moved to Poona. He had arrived in Poona one year after an acute and widespread illness in the area affecting monkeys and humans. Hughie set out to study the clinical presentation and course of what was known as Kyasanur forest disease over a three-month period. He identified two phases of the disease, first an influenza-like illness, followed by a second phase with severe headache and ‘disturbances of the CNS associated with abnormalities in the cerebrospinal fluid’. He also observed that in the first phase there was a decrease in the number of white blood cells, or leukopoenia, and a fall in the volume percentage of red blood cells, or haematocrit (‘Kyasanur forest disease: a general clinical study in which some cases with neurological complications were observed’ Trans R Soc Trop Med Hyg.1961 May;55:284-98).

He returned to London and to St Thomas’, where he would spend the rest of his career. He was appointed as a consultant neurologist in 1964, and became professor of neurovirology. In 1990 he was awarded a DSc. At St Thomas’ he continued his work on the virus causing Kyasanur forest disease. With colleagues, he made an extensive study of the treatment of malignant disease with Langat and Kyasanur viruses, specifically the effects on 10 patients with leukaemia and 18 with a variety of other malignancies. From their work, there was clear evidence that the viruses had destroyed the malignant cells.

Hughie went on to study the causes of viral disease of the central nervous system, and particularly the process of demyelination (or the loss of the myelin sheath insulating the nerves). This was because of the suggested viral aetiology of some neurological diseases, including multiple sclerosis.

Hughie was a respected and much-loved physician. He had an international reputation in his field, and travelled extensively, sharing his knowledge and experience.

He was very modest about his achievements and his kindness, charm, and gregarious personality ensured he made many friends. For 30 years he ran an early morning GP clinic for the nurses at St Thomas’ Hospital, and was made an honorary Nightingale on his retirement. He continued as a sportsman. He played golf and tennis at a high level of athletic achievement and was made a full member of the All England Lawn Tennis Club.

He was above all a devoted husband and father. In 1950 he married Monica Jean Macpherson. He was survived by his wife, their son and daughter, and five grandchildren.

Stephen Semple
Azadeh Khalili-Shirazi

[The Times 22 February 2011]

(Volume XII, page web)

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