Lives of the fellows

Alan Anthony Glynn

b.29 May 1923 d.2 April 2014
MB BS Lond(1946) MRCP(1954) MD(1959) MRCPath(1963) FRCPath(1972) FRCP(1974)

Alan Glynn, professor of bacteriology at St Mary’s Hospital, London, and director of the Central Public Health Laboratory at Colindale, was a distinguished bacteriologist who made important contributions to our understanding of the mechanisms by which our bodies defend us against infection and also our understanding of the genetic control of these mechanisms.

The eldest child of Hyman Glynn, an accountant, and Charlotte Glynn née Fluxbaum, who had come to London as young children during the immigration of Jews from Poland and Russia in the 1890s, Alan was born in Hackney, went to the local elementary school and won a scholarship that made it possible for him to go to Hackney Downs School. In 1939, that school was evacuated to King’s Lynn, but a year later he was transferred to the City of London School, which had been evacuated to Marlborough College.

By this time Alan had decided to follow a paternal uncle and aunt and become a doctor. In 1941, he started the five-year medical course, first at University College, and then at University College Hospital. After six months as a house physician, he spent two years as an assistant lecturer in physiology at Sheffield University, but, deciding that he wanted to return to clinical medicine, and needing to do his National Service, in 1950 he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps. For two years he was a captain in Hamburg – then still occupied by the British Army. Although he had never studied German at school, he found that his familiarity with his grandparents’ Yiddish was a great help in learning German.

After completing his National Service, Alan became a medical registrar, first at St Mary Abbot’s Hospital, in Kensington, then at the Canadian Red Cross Memorial Hospital at Taplow. In 1958 he was appointed as a senior registrar to St Mary’s Hospital Medical School and the associated Wright-Fleming Institute. This job had seemed ideal to Alan, since it appeared to combine work in hospital wards and scientific labs. Unfortunately, by that time the Wright-Fleming Institute was in a bad way, with Sir Almroth Wright [Munk’s Roll, Vol.V, p.460] long dead and Sir Alexander Fleming [Munk’s Roll, Vol.V, p.132] already an old man. Just how bad a way is revealed by Elsbeth Heaman in her book St Mary’s: the history of a London teaching hospital (Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 2003), which includes fascinating interviews with Alan. Fortunately Albert Neuberger [Munk’s Roll, Vol.X, p.362], the head of chemical pathology at St Mary’s, was made director of the Wright-Fleming Institute with a mandate ‘to shake things up’, which he did very successfully. One of the things he did was to encourage Alan to take up full-time research, which led to a very successful career, culminating first in the professorship of bacteriology at St Mary’s and later in the directorship of the Public Health Laboratory, at Colindale. This was at a time of increasing immigration and global travel, and the continued spread of HIV and AIDS.

Early in his research career, Alan and a colleague showed that lysozyme – an enzyme that Fleming had discovered in nasal mucus – exists in phagocytes and can destroy engulfed bacteria by cutting the long chains of sugars (linked by short peptide chains) that form a tough chain-mail-like network in the bacterial wall. More generally, his basic research concerned the interactions between bacteria and the host defences. Previously the outcome of infection was loosely ascribed to ‘bacterial virulence’, and the nature of host resistance was poorly defined. He and his colleagues analysed the bacterial and host factors determining the course of experimental infection in mice with E coli, Staphylococcus aureus or Salmonella typhimurium. He also studied the effect in mice of the protozoon Leishmania. From this work and that of other research groups, it became clear that it was important to distinguish between innate immunity and acquired immunity. Furthermore, most components of the host responses were shown to be under independent genetic control. The observed response to infection therefore depends both on bacterial products – especially toxins – and on the effects of the mechanisms responsible for the activated innate and acquired immunity.

Alan was also innovative in improving the contribution to clinical care of the microbiology department he directed. These contributions included major advances in techniques for diagnosing gonococcal and meningococcal infections, fuller analysis of the bacterial antigens that determined the specificity and sensitivity of many routine anti-bacterial antibody assays, and more statistically acceptable methods for defining positive diagnostic tests and antibiotic sensitivity. One of Alan’s most memorable qualities was his loathing of any pomposity and his ability to relate to people of all seniorities in the same way.

In 1962, while working at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, Alan was advised by his younger brother’s mother-in-law, Muriel Franklin, to contact the French scientist, Adrienne Weill, who had been a great friend of Muriel’s elder daughter, Rosalind Franklin, the distinguished biophysicist and X-ray crystallographer. The result was an invitation to dinner at which he met Nicole Benhamou, a friend of Adrienne Weill’s daughter. By the end of the year, Alan and Nicole were married. This was the beginning of 45 years of happy marriage, with Alan doing medical research, Nicole being a scientific attaché in the French Embassy, and both producing two bilingual daughters who later gave them five grandchildren. Sadly, Nicole died in October 2007, after suffering from Parkinson’s disease during her last five years – mostly spent at home being looked after devotedly by Alan.

In 1988 Alan retired from the directorship of the Public Health Laboratory at Colindale, but he continued to think about medical matters, and from time to time he would write letters or book reviews, perceptively and amusingly. In his early seventies he was asked to head a committee to consider hospital-acquired infections, a committee that produced a 93-page report that helped to reduce infections country-wide (Preventing hospital-acquired infection – clinical guidelines PHLS, 1997). When he was 76, he and Nicole wrote an interesting essay about Felix Vicq d’Azyr, an 18th century French physician who (among other things) studied rinderpest – a cattle disease with interesting resemblances to and differences from bovine spongiform encephalopathy or ‘mad cow disease’ (‘Plus ça change...from rinderpest to bovine spongiform encephalopathy’. J R Coll Physicians Lond. 1999 Nov-Dec;33[6]:576-80).

Only in the last two years of his life did Alan’s failing memory and impaired eyesight greatly reduce his activity; and only in the last few weeks was he bedridden. In the last years of his life he was greatly helped by his family and his old friends.

Ian Glynn
Michael Denman
Michael Glynn

(Volume XII, page web)

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