Lives of the fellows

Gladwin Albert Hurst Buttle

b.11 April 1899 d.3 May 1983
OBE(1942) BA Cantab(1922) MRCS LRCP(1924) MA(1927) MB Bchir(1967) FRCP*(1970) Hon MD Louvain(1945)

Gladwin Buttle, affectionately known to many simply as ‘B’, was a pioneer in the use of sulphonamides, a one time regular officer in the Royal Engineers, and an outstanding wartime leader in the development of blood transfusion services. He was born at Woldingham in Surrey; his father, William Buttle, was a solicitor and his mother, Mary, was the daughter of William Henry Ward, a builder. Gladwin started school at a Miss Brown’s of Warlingham, went on to Whitgift Grammar School in Croydon and from there to the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich. In 1918 he became a second lieutenant in the Royal Engineers, intending to make his career in the regular army. However, after only one year he decided to go up to St John’s College, Cambridge, to study medicine. He remained on the reserve of the Royal Engineers until 1939, and throughout his career retained an engineer’s skill in improvisation, ability to overcome practical difficulties, and a habit of storing away any bit of equipment ‘in case it might come in useful’.

At Cambridge, Gladwin had the intellectual capacity and maturity to profit richly from the great teachers of the time, including not only Ernest Rutherford, Adrian, Joseph Barcroft, Langley and Gowland Hopkins, but also Arthur Quiller-Couch, whose style and elegance in English were to serve as a model in writing to Gladwin throughout his life. His partner in the practical work was RA McCance, and the small class included Jack Gaddum, who became one of Gladwin’s closest friends. They went together to University College Hospital, London, where they were excited by the teaching of Sir Thomas Lewis on the conduction of the cardiac impulse and the action of histamine on capillaries, and soon after qualifying Gaddum persuaded Buttle to join him at the Wellcome Physiological Laboratories in Beckenham.

Gladwin was to stay for 14 years, working first on the mode of action of digitalis and local anaesthetics, but soon turning to the control of streptococcal infections by antisera and drugs. He obtained Prontosil from Domagk and tested it on mice infected with type C streptococci, which unluckily were not susceptible. Soon afterwards there was a meeting at the Royal Society of Medicine at which Dr Horlein of Bayer put forward spectacular results and Buttle, to Hörlein’s disgust, spoke of his own failure to repeat his successes. Gladwin said later that Alexander Fleming made the comment at that meeting that no drug was effective against streptococci - an odd remark in 1934 for one who was to enjoy a few years later the fame of his 1929 discovery of penicillin.

Gladwin next tried Prontosil against virulent streps provided by Leonard Colebrook from cases of puerperal sepsis, this time with strikingly good effect, and he arranged for the treatment in 1936 - with the active part of the dye, sulphanilamide, - of a woman dying of puerperal sepsis, who recovered, although she spent a month in a mental hospital as a result of the enormous trial dosage used. Further exciting experiments followed in the use of sulphanilamide and its derivatives in the treatment of meningococcal and gonococcal infections, and in investigations which were to prove of importance in leprosy. In 1937 Gladwin tried diamino-diphenyl sylphone (dapsone) on himself, obtaining antibacterial properties in his blood, with only a trace of methaemoglobinaemia, but his paper on the value and safety of a low dose of the sulphone was unfortunately overlooked, in regard to its significance for the treatment of leprosy, for many years.

At the outbreak of the second world war Gladwin was persuaded by Lionel Whitby to transfer from the Royal Engineers to the RAMC, in the newly formed Army Blood Transfusion Service. So began a major part of B’s career which has, in my opinion, never been adequately recognized; his OBE in 1942 acknowledged his outstanding leadership of No 1 Base Transfusion Unit in Cairo, but should surely have been just the prelude to higher awards. Gladwin’s invariable custom of giving all possible credit to others probably hindered wider recognition of his own supreme contribution to war medicine. Heneage Ogilvie was to write afterwards that ‘the greatest surgical advance of the war, more important even than penicillin, (was) the development of the transfusion service ... and (it was) lieutenant colonel GAH Buttle who taught us how to use it’.

Plasma was being produced in large quantities in England, but for casualties on the field of battle it was the replacement of whole blood which enabled early and effective surgery to be carried out under anaesthesia. The UK did not agree and would not send equipment. Buttle, with his devoted team in Cairo and the Middle East Forces, had to improvise the local manufacture of rubber tubing, bungs, drip-chambers and needles, and their adaptation to many hundreds of gin and whisky bottles — not all of which lost their original contents before B generously sent them forward to the Field Transfusion Units in the boxes of blood and plasma.

Gladwin’s initiative and determination, against the declared wishes of the War Office, were protected by JSK Boyd {q.v.), who later said ‘it was much easier to give Buttle what he wanted straight away, than to be forced to do so a week or two later and have to apologize for the delay’. Countless men must owe their lives, or their freedom from more severe disabilities, to Gladwin Buttle: he set a magnificent example of never taking ‘no’ for an answer, and never saying ‘no’ to any request for help.

At the end of 1943 Gladwin had the honour of being summoned to Carthage to help treat ChurchilPs bronchial infection; the Prime Minister, despite his illness, wanted an explanation of the mode of action of penicillin, and an assurance that adequate supplies of the ‘wonder drug’ would be available for the invasion of Normandy. Gladwin was also involved, with Frank Ellis, in saving Orde Wingate’s life by blood transfusion after Wingate had cut his throat during the insanity of an attack of cerebral malaria.

As soon as the war was over Gladwin was appointed to the Wellcome chair of pharmacology in the school of pharmacy, London University, continuing his own research on the chemotherapy of bacterial diseases, and extending his investigations into the induction of resistance to experimental tumours in animals, work which unfortunately could not be extended successfully to human beings. For ten of these years Gladwin was also teaching pharmacology at Bart’s. For a short time, in 1968, he worked in Mexico on behalf of the FAO, as consultant in the pre-clinical teaching of veterinary students. There followed a spell as professor of pharmacology in Addis Ababa (1972-1974) and in Riyadh (1974-1978). He was actively teaching up to the age of 79, and remained insatiably curious about every advance in biology and medicine up to the very last days.

Gladwin’s other selfless task in life was to accept from his remarkable brother, Frank, responsibility for the work of the Buttle Trust for Children. Frank was an Anglican clergyman who combined a personal poverty with a flair for stock market investment. He made a fortune which the two brothers devoted, through the Trust, to the education and welfare of illegitimate, abandoned or deprived children. Gladwin was chairman of the Trust from 1953 to 1974 and under his guidance it grew in national importance, dispensing around £lm a year for the welfare of children.

Gladwin married Eva Korella, a talented painter, in 1936, bringing her to England from the threatened city of Danzig where her father was professor of botany and curator of the museum. During all the 47 years of their marriage, and particularly since his retirement, Gladwin - so often oblivious of his own welfare - would have been lost without the secure home life and love which Eva provided. They had one child, Richard.

Gladwin has been described as a ‘force of nature’, a man larger than life in the breadth of his intellectual scope, the depth of his scientific curiosity, in his personal courage, humour and determination, and above all in his infinite kindness and practical sympathy. He was a robust, heavily built but agile man, with a prominent lower jaw, who chewed out his words with an accent others loved to imitate; an accent which was just as evident when he was speaking French, German, Spanish or Arabic, and who had - as a sort of signature tune - a loud, boisterous, heaving laugh, so infectious that many found themselves helplessly laughing without any idea of what the original joke had been.

Sir Gordon Wolstenholme

*He was elected under the special bye-law which provides for the election to the fellowship of "Persons holding a medical qualification, but not members of the College, who have distinguished themselves in the practice of medicine, or in the pursuit of Medical or General Science or Literature..."

[Brit.med.J., 1983, 286, 1758 & 287, 138, 370; Lancet, 1983, 1, 1232; Times, 9 May 1983; Mem. Service Univ. Church of Christ the King, London, Address]

(Volume VII, page 73)

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