Lives of the fellows

Patrick Loudon Mollison

b.17 March 1914 d.26 November 2011
CBE(1979) BA Cantab(1935) MB BChir(1938) MRCS LRCP(1938) MRCP(1940) MD(1944) FRCP(1957) FRCPath(1964) FRS

Patrick Loudon (‘Pat’) Mollison, who has been described as ‘the father of transfusion medicine’, was a pioneer in the development of blood transfusion during the Second World War and professor of haematology at St Mary’s Hospital, London. His grandfather, William Loudon Mollinson, was a leading mathematician who had overcome a humble Scottish upbringing to become Master of Clare College, Cambridge. He was one of the family of three sons and two daughters of William Mayhew Mollison, a distinguished ear, nose and throat surgeon at Guy’s Hospital and his wife, Beatrice Marjorie née Walker, whose father, William, was a merchant. Brought up in a household with eight servants and a chauffeur, later he commented on the family’s assumption that he would follow his father into medicine ‘my father was determined on it, and I could see nothing against it.’ Educated at St Peter’s Preparatory School and Rugby (which he hated), he studied medicine at Clare College, Cambridge and St Thomas’ Hospital. At Cambridge he learned to fly a Tiger Moth but came out with a poor degree, which he said would not have got him a place in the department he later headed.

Qualifying in 1938, he was house physician to the medical unit at St Thomas’ for a year, including anaesthetic and casualty officer tasks. In 1939, on the outbreak of war, he was sent by the dean of St Thomas’s Hospital Medical School to the South London Blood Supply Unit, which was one of the four blood supply units created in London to cope with the anticipated high number of casualties. The dean realised that the, relatively new, technique of blood transfusion could prove an important way of saving lives. The unit was set up in a former school where the gym became a laboratory and the library was a room for donors. Mollison hired a theatrical impresario to encourage donors to come forward. Asked to deliver blood supplies to smaller hospitals where staff had little experience of giving transfusions and welcomed his help, he found the journeys were often hazardous. He recalled that ‘unless there was bright moonlight, driving to hospitals in the blackout was a challenge. Only partially masked sidelights were allowed and the roads were poorly lit.’

It was during the four years that he spent with the blood supply unit that he began work on the need to improve the shelf-life of stored blood. At the time blood was preserved by adding trisodium citrate and dextrose. The components had to be sterilised separately and the dextrose caramelised if they were mixed first, causing possible contamination and even death. With two colleagues, John Loutit [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.319] and Maureen Young, he carried out a study of acidified chlorate-dextrose solutions (ACDs) which vastly improved storage time and was harmless to the patient. The resulting paper ‘Disodium-citrate-glucose mixture as a blood preservative’ with J Loutit (BMJ, 1943, 2, 744-5) became a classic in the field. A former colleague and professor of transfusion medicine at the Royal Free Hospital, Dame Marcela Contreras, commented that it was hard to overestimate the importance of this discovery before which blood stocks could only be kept for three to four days and after which they lasted three weeks. She remarked that the process ‘was adopted worldwide and used for more than 30 years.

In 1943 he joined the RAMC and, after serving in training units in Britain, was sent toward the end of the war to Germany. He was one of the first doctors to enter Bergen-Belsen concentration camp when it was liberated in April 1945. He published a paper the following year ‘Observations on cases of starvation at Belsen’ (BMJ, 1946, 1, 4-8) in which he described the terrible state of the surviving inmates, who needed encouragement to eat in spite of suffering severe malnutrition, and that the fear of being without food was such that ‘even dying patients would put bread-and-butter and meat under their pillows’. Reaching the rank of lieutenant colonel, he ended his military service in Burma where he was in charge of a field hospital in Mektila and was eventually sent home with a minor tropical illness.

Rejoining the staff at St Thomas’ briefly in 1946, he was then invited to head the Medical Research Council (MRC)’s Blood Transfusion Unit at the Hammersmith Hospital. While there he carried out research on the survival of red blood cells post transfusion and on adverse reactions, such as that caused by rhesus incompatibility, which was found sometimes in newborns and in transfusion patients. The first exchange transfusion carried out on a newborn suffering from blood poisoning as a result of rhesus incompatibility happened at this time in his unit. In 1950 he also became senior lecturer at the London Postgraduate Medical School. He remained director of the MRC’s unit when it moved to St Mary’s Hospital Medical School in 1960 and was renamed the Experimental Haematology Unit. Appointed professor of haematology at London University in 1962, he became professor emeritus when he retired in 1979. For a while he continued to do research with Marcela Contreras for the North London Blood Transfusion Service

The author of nearly 200 scientific papers on topics such as the survival of transfused red blood cells and on clinical aspects of blood groups, he also wrote the classic text in his field. Universally known as ‘Mollison’, Blood transfusion in clinical medicine (Oxford, Blackwell Scientific Publications, 1951) is still regarded as essential reading having sold over 70,000 copies. He edited the first six editions and the twelfth edition was published a month after his death.

Elected a fellow of the Royal Society, he was also awarded the CBE in 1979. He had been an advisor to the Queen on the birth of her four children, a role which was known to only a few people. In retirement his son Simon commented that ‘having no current research’ he took to giving lectures on the history of blood transfusion ‘starting with an account of an experiment on dogs by Christopher Wren. Pat joked that people invited him out of mere curiosity because he had already become part of the history of medicine’.

At Cambridge he had played tennis and squash and skiing was a passion all his life – he was still skiing at the age of 86. He enjoyed gardening and listening to classical music. A lighter moment during his time at Belsen was provided when he showed Benjamin Brittan and Yehudi Menuhin round the camp before they gave a concert to inmates. A frequent visitor to Covent Garden, Bayreuth and Glyndebourne, he attended the annual Schubert festival in Switzerland until his late 90s. For his 90th birthday his wife gave him a Mercedes sports car which, one of his sons claimed, he drove ‘fast and well’. A convivial host, he had entertained friends to dinner two nights before his death.

In 1940 he married Margaret Doreen née Peirce, whose father, John Hayward Peirce, was an astronomer. She was a medical practitioner who qualified in Cape Town. They had three sons and divorced in 1964. He married Jennifer née Jones, a consultant anaesthetist at St Mary’s Hospital in 1973, and she survived him when he died from a stroke, together with his three sons, two of whom are called Simon and Denis.

RCP editor

[The Times 19 January 2012; The Telegraph; The Guardian; The Lancet; BMJ 2012 344 1233; Clare College alumni – all accessed 6 October 2015]

(Volume XII, page web)

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