Lives of the fellows

Arthur Ivens Spriggs

b.12 September 1919 d.12 December 2015
BA Oxon(1941) MB BCh(1943) MRCP(1944) DM(1952) MRCPath(1964) FRCP(1968) FRCPath(1973)

Arthur Spriggs, cytopathologist, naturalist and collector, was born in Banff, Scotland, the second son of the physician Sir Edmund Ivens Spriggs [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IV, p.468]. His mother, Alice Mary née Watson, was from a farming family and a keen amateur botanist. His father had trained in London and rose to become dean of St George’s Hospital Medical School, but after periods of ill health (probably tuberculosis) he moved to Scotland, where he was co-founder of a medical clinic at Duff House, Banff. This moved in 1923 to Ruthin Castle, Denbighshire, Wales, where it became a state of the art medical diagnostic clinic. The hospital was surrounded by beautiful gardens and grounds where the patients could take the air, and it was in this refined medical milieu that Arthur, and his elder brother Tony, were brought up. Their father was a keen sportsman and the boys were encouraged to shoot and fish, but Arthur was more attracted to his mother’s interest in botany and the study of fungi and gastropods, which he became skilled at drawing and painting in detail.

Both boys were educated at prep school in Oxford, followed by Winchester College, with a six-month interlude in 1935, when they were taken on a round-the-world cruise by their father who was on honeymoon with his second wife, Janet MacIntosh, Arthur and Tony's mother Alice having died two years before. This experience gave Arthur a lasting taste for travel. On leaving Winchester both brothers won places at New College, Oxford, after which they followed separate career paths within medicine, Tony finally becoming a chest physician at Newcastle General Hospital [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VIII, p.481]. After completing his BM at Oxford, Arthur received his medical training at Liverpool and Edinburgh General hospitals, during which time he married Gereth Watson, of Dinton, Buckinghamshire.

Being mobilised into the RAMC in 1944, he saw active service through the European offensive of 1944, and was part of the complement of an American tank landing ship at the D-day landings. During 1945 he was based in Belgium, Holland, and Germany with general hospital units of the British Liberation Army, treating war casualties, POWs and civilians. Freshly promoted to captain, he was with 163 Field Ambulance when, in early May 1945, it was rapidly moved to help clear the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and where for some weeks he was exposed to the unimaginable horrors that the retreating Germans left behind them. After moving between hospitals in Hannover and Berlin, he was finally posted to Brunswick, where he was joined for some months by his wife Gereth. His regular letters home from Europe are full of vivid descriptions of the scenes and events of countries in chaos that he experienced, often illustrated with sketches, and stories of the patients and medical staff who he worked with, all told with characteristic wry humour.

On demobilisation in early 1947, he contacted his old Oxford tutor Alastair Robb-Smith [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web], who offered him the post of registrar in haematology at the Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford. It was here that he developed an interest in the cytological diagnosis of malignancy, performing detailed work on the identification of tumour cells in serous fluid. His research culminated in his doctoral thesis on the cytology of serous effusions in 1952. While at the Infirmary, he spent some time with George Papanicolaou at Cornell University, New York, familiarising himself with the use of wet fixed preparations on cervical smears. Then, in 1952, he took up a senior registrar post in the department of pathology at the Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford, specialising in haematology and bacteriology, where he helped to establish the unit which was to become the Oxford cytology laboratory. Here he was appointed honorary consultant cytologist for the United Oxford Hospitals and, from 1957, was for some years a researcher for the British Empire Cancer Campaign. Also in 1957 his doctoral thesis was published as The cytology of effusions in the pleural, pericardial and peritoneal cavities (London, William Heinemann Medical Books), an invaluable textbook, which was notably enhanced, in those days before photomicroscopy, by the detailed watercolour illustrations of the Romanowsky-stained cells, painted by his artist wife. This was followed by another landmark publication, an Atlas of serous fluid cytopathology: a guide to the cells of pleural, pericardial, peritoneal and hydrocele fluids (Dordrecht, Kluwer), published in 1989 with his colleague Michael Boddington, which received the Glaxo prize for its illustrations. In 1983 he had also published History of clinical cytology – a selection of documents (Darmstadt, Giebeler) with his German colleague Dr Heinz Grunze – a unique reminder of how clinical cytology has evolved in tandem with the development of the microscope.

With its large diagnostic and cervical screening workload, the Oxford laboratory was a busy but well organised and notably friendly place to work, where pathologists and scientists from other laboratories were particularly welcomed, Arthur always offering sound advice and encouragement. His own 80 research publications included work on chromosome studies, the cytological-histological correlations in lung, cervix and gastric tumours, identification of circulating tumour cells in blood, the automation of staining processes and slide screening, immunocytochemistry and electron microscopic study of cells in effusions. Over the years, these achievements were recognised in many ways. He was a founder member of the Royal College of Pathologists and of the British Society for Clinical Cytology, in 1960 subsequently being appointed its chairman and president in 1970. In the same year he received the Goldblatt award of the International Academy of Cytology and served as the president of the European Federation of Cytology Societies from 1979 to 1981.

He retired from the NHS in 1984 and was by no means idle for the next 30 years or so. He collected 17th century Chinese porcelain and was a keen member of the Oriental Ceramic Society, and he also accumulated a fine collection of antique Venetian and Flemish lace. Yet it was his commitment to natural history that dominated much of his later years. Not only an indefatigable gardener, he also became the main field worker tasked with carrying out a survey of the slugs and snails in Oxfordshire, a 12-year programme the results of which were published in 2000 as An atlas of Oxfordshire terrestrial mollusca (occasional paper no.20, Oxfordshire County Council, Oxfordshire Museums Service), when he was 80. A keen supporter of many medical, humanitarian and conservation charities, he was also devoted to his family, and was for many years warden at his local church. Polyglot and polymath, Arthur Spriggs was modest and immensely likeable, and possessed a wonderful sense of humour. Predeceased by his wife in 2007, he was survived by his son James and granddaughter, Hermione.

James A Spriggs

[The Guardian 8 February 2016 – accessed 22 March 2016; The Oxford Times 3 March 2016 – accessed 22 March 2016; British Association for Cytopathology News – accessed 22 March 2016]

(Volume XII, page web)

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