Lives of the fellows

Merton Sandler

b.28 March 1926 d.24 August 2014
MB ChB Manch(1949) MRCP(1955) MD(1962) MRCPath(1963) FRCPath(1970) FRCP(1974)

Merton Sandler was professor of chemical pathology at the Institute of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, University of London, and a pioneer in the field of biological psychiatry. He discovered a link between depression and a deficiency in monoamine neurotransmitters in the brain, which eventually led to the development of modern-day antidepressants. He also produced seminal work on the chemical causes and treatment of an unusually broad range of other conditions, including Parkinsonism, alcoholism, migraine and schizophrenia

Merton Sandler was born in Salford, into an observant Jewish family. His father, Frank Sandler, owned a small business; his mother was Edith Sandler née Stein. Although most were of modest means, the Jewish community had a deeply-ingrained learning tradition, coupled with the recent immigrant’s drive. Sandler’s class alone at Grecian Street Elementary School yielded four Jewish university professors. His big break was gaining a scholarship to Manchester Grammar School – which he loathed. He went on to study medicine at Manchester University, qualifying in 1949.

He held house posts in Manchester and was then a resident pathologist at Preston Royal Infirmary. From 1951 to 1953 he carried out his National Service, as a junior specialist in pathology. He then went to the Brompton Hospital as a research assistant. From 1955 he was a lecturer in chemical pathology at the Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine. Three years later, he became a consultant in chemical pathology at Queen Charlotte’s Maternity Hospital, and, from 1973, he was professor of chemical pathology at the Institute of Obstetrics and Gynaecology.

In 1959, at a time when most psychiatry was psychoanalytic, Sandler and his colleague, the psychiatrist Michael Pare [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web], first suggested depression might result from a deficit of monoamines, such as serotonin, noradrenaline and dopamine. When the researchers blocked monoamine oxidase, which is responsible for the breakdown of these monoamines, they were able to show an improvement in mood. Sandler pursued the monoamine oxidase story for the rest of his working life, discovering, amongst other things, a safe, effective treatment for Parkinson’s disease in the substance deprenyl – a drug still widely in use today.

As a scientist Sandler had a quirky, unorthodox approach. In the 1950s, during his freewheeling days as a young pathologist doing National Service in Shorncliffe on the south coast, he and Mike Pare accosted cross-channel swimmers for urine samples, for some research on platelets. At his research laboratory at Queen Charlotte’s Hospital in the 1970s, Sandler had his team down either vodka or cooled red wine at breakfast time, to test theories on migraine triggers. Sandler recalled smuggling a kilo of the white powdery substance deprenyl back from Hungary in his pockets. When he and his team went to publish ground-breaking work on the effect of the chemical on Parkinson’s disease, they had some serious questions to answer from the ethics committee. On another occasion, Sandler self-experimented, using the drug reserpine, which made him depressed, paranoid and aggressive for a month.

He also had adventures at Wormwood Scrubs Prison, where he persuaded the psychiatrist to allow access to violent psychopaths and white collar criminals, to test for different chemical levels in their brains. When Sandler’s team uncovered tribulin – a new compound specific to aggressive criminals – the press had a field day, and the Scrubs withdrew access. One evening Sandler was having a gripe to a young man at a dinner party about the matter, who turned out to be the then Minister for Transport, Norman Fowler. The minister promptly offered to speak to his friend the Home Secretary, and within six weeks he was once again allowed access to the prison.

He was a father figure in his field, challenging, developing, encouraging, mentoring, using his weight to get funding for young colleagues and students at his world-beating neuroscience research facility. Ex-students and protégés talk fondly about inspirational times spent working with ‘the prof’ (as he was known), which fired their working lives. They now occupy their own chairs and are heads of department across the academic world.

Sandler published – extraordinarily – over 700 works, a large number of which have become citation classics in his fields, and edited myriad journals. He was a founder-member and early president of the British Association for Psychopharmacology. He was also instrumental in setting up the Association for Post-Natal Illness in 1979, at a time when depression bore a stigma and post-natal illness was viewed as unforgivable. He remained life president.

He revelled in glamorous international travel, and arguably did his best work, brainstorming, formulating and breaking new ground with colleagues at scientific meetings under a palm tree in the Caribbean or on the beach in Sardinia. He spent perhaps a third of his time travelling, collaborating with his network of neuroscientist colleagues across the US, Europe, India, Japan, Australia and Israel.

In the days of Soviet anti-semitic persecution in the 1960s and 1970s, Sandler used his contacts in the USSR scientific establishment to help Jewish neuroscientists behind the Iron Curtain. He fostered scientific ties, faced down the authorities and the KGB to promote visits abroad – which at the time were forbidden to Jews – helped them leave the country for good, find work and get settled in the West. At the height of the Cold War, Sandler was one of the relatively few scientists to maintain contact with the Soviets. Both the Russians and the British investigated him for spying.

Sandler was hallowed as an international celebrity on the brain biochemistry research circuit, loved for his huge intellect, his at once rigorous and creative approach, sparkling wit and hilarious, sometimes filthy, after-dinner speeches. One eminent professor of biochemistry commented: ‘Merton was a hysterically funny after-dinner speaker and, had it existed in his heyday, would surely have been a famous name on the comedy circuit.’ Parties chez Sandler were legendary and booze-charged.

His work was recognised with a slew of prestigious awards, including the Anna Monika prize for research into the biological aspects of depression (1973), a gold medal for his research form the British Migraine Association (1974) and the CINP (Collegium Internationale Neuro-Psychopharmacologicum) pioneer award for his lifetime contribution to monoamine studies in human health and disease (2006).

Merton Sandler was survived by his wife Lorna (née Grenby), a simultaneous interpreter, and four children: Martin, Livy, Nick and Dido.

Dido Sandler

[The Guardian 9 October 2014 – accessed 21 February 2015; The Telegraph 27 October 2014 – accessed 21 February 2015; The Times 31 October 2014; The Migraine Trust News & press 17th November 2014 Obituary – Professor Merton Sandler – accessed 21 February 2015; BMJ 2014 349 6609 – accessed 21 February 2015; BASH British Association for the Study of Headache – Merton Sandler – obituary – accessed 21 February 2015]

(Volume XII, page web)

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