Lives of the fellows

Eric Saxon Snell

b.6 July 1923 d.7 February 2015
MB BS Lond(1948) MRCP(1952) MA Oxon(1961) MD Lond(1967) FRCP(1973)

Eric Saxon Snell was director of medical and scientific affairs at the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) and a former medical director of Glaxo. He was born in London, the son of Gertrude Mary Snell née Wallis and Reginald Snell, a company director. His childhood was spent in north London, where he attended Highgate School with his older brother George. He left with good qualifications plus silver cups he had won for running.

His family lived in Finchley and later in Sunningdale, and his working life began as a weatherman with the Air Ministry during the Second World War. He was released from his duties to study medicine because the authorities realised that the country would need more doctors after the war. He was given a place at St Mary’s and sold his motorbike for £30 to pay the first year’s fees. His studies began in Berkhamsted in 1942. Money was so short that his lunch consisted of a penny bun each day, but he studied hard and came top in all three prize exams at the end of the year. For this he was awarded £10 for each exam, a further scholarship of £50, a small grant from a group of Kensington clergymen and a council grant of £50.

He flirted with the stage while at medical school, appearing in two Gilbert and Sullivan operas. One of them, The Mikado, was attended by two young princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, who apparently showed obvious signs of enjoying the show very much.

He passed his MB BS final exams in 1948, after revising in his flat with his feet in a box of sawdust to keep them warm, and got his first post after qualification as the sole resident doctor at a small hospital in Ramsgate. One of his patients there had a Colles’ fracture of the forearm. He had never seen one before, but read in a textbook how to repair it with a firm blow to the offending bone. He took a few practice swings on the nurse before administering the decisive blow to the patient – fortunately giving a perfect result. Curiously, he suffered his own Colles’ fracture many years later, when playing football for a Glaxo team.

It was through his brother George that he met his future wife, Margaret (née Edmond). George was courting her sister Glenys and they introduced Eric and Margaret to each other at a dinner dance in a hotel near Watford. They were married in July 1949 in Crickhowell in south Wales, where Margaret’s mother lived and where George and Glenys had been married the year before. Two brothers married two sisters and the four of them remained very close for the rest of their lives, with Margaret the sole survivor today. Eric and Margaret went on to have three children, Nicola, Nigel and Philippa, and seven grandchildren. He was always exceedingly proud of all of them, supporting and encouraging them in their various achievements.

His medical career was highly distinguished. After Ramsgate he returned to St Mary’s – as a house physician and later registrar and senior registrar – where he worked under his former professor and mentor Sir George Pickering [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.464].

In 1959 he took the opportunity to spend a year teaching at a medical school in Ibadan, Nigeria. There he conducted research into the presence of pyrogens in fluid exudates, a continuation of his earlier work at St Mary’s on the mode of action of pyrogens.

After Nigeria he took a teaching and research post as May reader in medicine at Oxford University. In 1965 he moved into the pharmaceutical industry and became medical director of Glaxo and later a director of Glaxo Group Research. He demonstrated his wider interest in pharmaceutical industry affairs by chairing the medical committee of the ABPI and also by serving on their code of practice committee. In 1970 he coined the now widely-used terms ‘pharmaceutical medicine’ and ‘pharmaceutical physician’ – apparently much to the chagrin of the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain!

In 1980 he left Glaxo and moved to the ABPI to become their director of medical and scientific affairs. He pursued the role with energy, dedication and vigour, and because of his personality and integrity he was able to build many bridges with other professional bodies and government departments. As a result of his enthusiasm the Centre for Medicines Research was born, among many other achievements.

He published several authoritative articles on pharmaceutical medicine, notably on research into topical steroids and the extension of their use. While at Glaxo he offered himself as a patient for a number of clinical trials and on one occasion tested new steroids on his own skin, for which he had to wear a transparent plastic bodysuit overnight.

He had a hugely enquiring mind and never liked to be idle. In his leisure time he would try his hand at almost anything, from brewing beer and making wine, to painting, picture framing and studying philosophy. He was never happier than when he was busy and when he was surrounded by his family.

He retired aged 62, but continued to do consultancy work in the pharmaceutical industry for a while. He also turned to music, a former love, with his usual energy and fervour, taking classes at the City Literary Institute in London. He spent a few years playing and composing and had his music performed publicly in Dorset in 1989. He was also a valued member of the Dorset Choral Society.

He had an enduring interest in watercolour paintings and art books – buying and selling books and paintings, making new friends, and once setting up a part-time book business called Maric Books, named after Margaret and Eric.

He was always a physically active man too, from playing football and running at school, to more football at St Mary’s, during which time he played full back for the Combined Hospitals against an Oxford and Cambridge University team. He also played football while at Glaxo, where he was a regular in the ‘veterans’ team. He took up golf in retirement and was also a frequent jogger and dog walker for many years. All of that activity goes some way towards explaining his 91 years of largely very good health.

Over the last few years he wasn’t able to be so active, but lived happily in Poundbury village in Dorset with Margaret, caring for her very lovingly when she became less well. He was also working on his memoirs (which may yet see the light of day) and, from the work in progress, it is clear that he appreciated the fact that he had lived a very rich, varied and rewarding life.

He also unfailingly retained his great sense of humour and ability to see the funny side in life. Although he became physically less able in the last couple of years, his mind remained alert and his ability to laugh out loud was undiminished, even when his health deteriorated over the last few weeks of his life.

He died in Dorchester County Hospital, Dorset, after a short illness. He will be remembered very fondly as a loving husband, father and grandfather. He will never be forgotten by his wife Margaret, his children and grandchildren, other family members, and the many friends from inside and outside the medical world who he became close to over the years.

Nigel Snell

(Volume XII, page web)

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