Lives of the fellows

Colin Richard Murray Prentice

b.13 December 1934 d.1 February 2014
BA Cantab(1956) MB BChir(1959) DTM&H(1961) MRCP(1964) MD(1970) MRCP Glasg(1974) FRCP(1977) FRCP Glasg(1977)

Colin Richard Murray Prentice was professor of medicine at the General Infirmary, Leeds. He was amongst the last of a unique breed of clinical academics who made important clinical observations that changed practice without the benefit of today’s modern technology. Colin lived a professional life that floated above the humdrum: everything was an adventure – from his experiences in Laos and Nigeria, through to clinical research and patient care. This inquisitive taste for understanding things in a different way directed his life in general and his professional life in particular.

Colin was born in Aldershot into a military family who were on leave from India, where his parents had met. They returned finally to England on New Year’s Eve 1939, crossing France overland to avoid the U-boats in the Atlantic. His father, Malcolm Robert Prentice, was an officer in the Royal Engineers and later, after they moved to Edinburgh, would teach Colin to fish and to play golf. His mother came from a family with a long tradition in the Indian Civil Service. She was a talented artist who would inspire Colin to draw and to paint. Colin acquired the order and discipline of his Army upbringing. He was educated at Marlborough College, where he played hockey and collected butterflies, before studying natural sciences at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where he was elected president of the Cambridge University Medical Society. He trained in clinical medicine at Westminster Hospital Medical School, where he won a number of student prizes. Any spare time was spent walking or shouldering skis and trudging in search of snow in the Highlands of Scotland.

After house posts in Westminster Hospital and Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge, Colin and his fellow student friend Anthony Bryceson, were employed by the Commonwealth Relations Office and attended the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, before undertaking their National Service in Laos as a two-man medical team with the Colombo Plan, a Commonwealth scheme to provide technical assistance to Southeast Asian countries. Based in Saravan city (now Salavan), a provincial capital, inadequately trained and working in French and Lao, they managed as best they could to care for patients with every kind of medical, surgical and occasionally obstetric problem in the provincial hospital and at the regular clinics that they organised in surrounding villages, while attempting to train the local nursing staff and improve public health. In 1962 the civil war intervened, and Colin, Anthony, their Lao male nurse and their red Irish setter dog were captured by a communist Pathet Lao guerrilla force under the command of Sithon Kommadam, a veteran of the Indochina wars, who was now fighting against the Americans. Fortunate not to have been shot, the team was held for 33 days in remote villages in the jungle, where Colin played chess with the leader of the guerrilla group and trudged through the jungle from place to place. Two British diplomats, who had obtained a letter from the Pathet Lao high command authorising the team’s release, were similarly captured and it took the formation of a new coalition government in Laos to provide the occasion for their release.

Colin’s goal had always been a career in academic medicine. On his return to the UK in 1963, he was appointed as a registrar in medicine at Glasgow Royal Infirmary, where he passed his MRCP and subsequently joined Alexander Stuart Douglas [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XI, p.165] working in the department of medicine. He secured an American Heart Association fellowship to Cleveland, Ohio, with Oscar Ratnoff, a pioneer in coagulation research.

In 1968 Colin took up a Medical Research Council fellowship in the department of medicine at Glasgow University, where he became a reader in medicine in 1979. From 1971 he was director of the haemophilia reference centre and the coagulation research laboratory at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary. In 1983 he was appointed professor of medicine at Leeds General Infirmary, where he remained until his retirement in 2000, when he was appointed emeritus professor.

Colin was editor of Thrombosis Research from 1979 to 1983 and was president of the British Society for Haemostasis and Thrombosis from 1985 to 1986. He served on an expert group of the World Health Organization on the detection of haemophilia carriers, on the Royal College of Physicians’ committee on haematology and on the advisory board of the European Concerted Action on Thrombosis.

Colin was the author or joint author of some 300 papers on arterial and venous diseases involving abnormal bleeding or blood clotting (including haemophilia) and contributed numerous chapters to textbooks. He came to wider public attention in 2000 as one of the principal investigators of the Pulmonary Embolism Prevention trial, which studied 13,356 patients undergoing hip surgery randomised to aspirin or placebo post-operatively. The results, published in The Lancet, showed that aspirin reduced total post-operative deep vein thrombosis by 36 per cent, pulmonary embolism by 43 per cent and fatal pulmonary embolism by 58 per cent (‘Prevention of pulmonary embolism and deep vein thrombosis with low dose aspirin: Pulmonary Embolism Prevention [PEP] trial’. Lancet. 2000 Apr 15;355[9212]:1295-1302). Colin concluded that aspirin should be considered routinely in all surgical and medical groups at high risk of thrombosis.

Despite his single-minded pursuit of academic medicine in the UK, Colin had never entirely abandoned his earlier interest in the tropics. In the early 1970s, David Warrell was studying the devastating effect of saw-scaled viper bites during the farming season in northern Nigeria. He persuaded Colin to come out of his ivory tower and into the field where, he believed, the real challenges for medicine lay. Colin made two trips to rural Nigeria, in 1974 and in 1977, and made a huge contribution to the understanding and management of snake bite.

Colin’s first marriage, to Jane Rennie, was dissolved. He was survived by his second wife, Patricia, by two sons and a daughter from his first marriage, and by a stepson and stepdaughter.

Anthony Bryceson
Peter Grant

[The Telegraph 11 May 2014 www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/medicine-obituaries/10823369/Professor-Colin-Prentice-obituary.html – accessed 12 September 2015; University of Leeds Secretariat Obituaries 2014 www.leeds.ac.uk/secretariat/obituaries/2014/prentice_colin.html – accessed 12 September 2015]

(Volume XII, page web)

<< Back to List