Lives of the fellows

Rosalind Mary Maskell

b.12 June 1928 d.7 September 2016
BA Oxon(1950) BM BCh(1953) DOst RCOG(1955) DM(1985) MRCP(1985) FRCP(1992)

Rosalind Maskell was a senior medical microbiologist at the Public Health Laboratory Service and Wessex regional renal unit, based at St Mary’s Hospital, Portsmouth. She was born in London, the daughter of Cuthbert Snowball Rewcastle, a county court judge, and Attracta Genevieve Rewcastle née Candon, who studied medicine in Dublin and was the first female commissioned officer in the Royal Navy. After school in Tunbridge Wells and at Millfield, Rosalind attended Somerville College, Oxford as a Nuffield scholar in medicine, graduating with a first class degree in physiology in 1950. She then undertook clinical training at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London and qualified in 1953. After house jobs, she married a fellow graduate, John Maskell, and ceased medical practice for 14 years in order to raise a family and support John in his work as a general practitioner in Havant.

In 1968, looking for an opportunity to return to medical practice as her children were growing up, she obtained an appointment as a clinical assistant in the renal unit and Public Health Laboratory Service in Portsmouth. Her remit was to acquaint herself with the field of urinary tract infection and then to undertake clinical and laboratory duties in this field. This was to be the focus of her work for the rest of her career.

Alongside her clinical duties, she established from scratch a research programme which led her to publish two books – Urinary tract infection (London, Edward Arnold, 1982) and Urinary tract infection in clinical and laboratory practice (London, Edward Arnold, 1988) – many chapters in multi-author publications on renal medicine, surgery and microbiology and over 50 peer-reviewed scientific papers. Her interest had been stimulated by the plight of women whom she encountered in the clinic with unexplained urinary symptoms and clinical diagnoses of ‘urethral syndrome’ or ‘interstitial cystitis’. Her suspicion was that current standard laboratory techniques for urine culture were failing to identify the organisms which were causing infection in these patients. She was able to show that using prolonged growth under anaerobic conditions, pure cultures of certain ‘fastidious’ organisms usually regarded as commensals could be obtained from the urine of some of these patients. Her hypothesis was that repeated courses of antibiotics led to the selection of resistant bacteria in the urethral commensal flora and that these then had a role in the aetiology of symptoms.

Her work was rewarded with a number of distinctions, including the award of a DM by Oxford University in 1985 and, in the same year, election as a member of the Royal College of Physicians. She became a fellow in 1992. She was proud to serve as a member of the National Biological Standards Board from 1988 to 1992.

Despite these welcome forms of recognition, her work did not find favour with the medical microbiology establishment of the day and she was deeply wounded by a particularly damning review of one of her books. She always suspected that her work would have been better received had it emanated from a major research centre, rather than from a part-time female clinician in a district hospital with a single laboratory assistant.

Although sustained by her late husband’s reassurance that the truth will always out in the end, it remained a source of great frustration to her that work which had the potential to benefit countless patients suffering from disabling symptoms had not in fact changed clinical or laboratory practice outside her own centre. In her early eighties, she decided to make one final attempt to attract wider attention to her work on urinary infection and submitted a paper summarising her earlier research to the journal Medical Hypotheses. ‘The natural history of urinary tract infection in women’ (Med Hypotheses. 2010 May;74[5]:802-6) was published in May 2010.

Her persistence was rewarded when she was contacted soon afterwards by a group of researchers from Loyola University, Chicago, who were using genetic techniques to investigate the urinary microbiome and its implications for our understanding of urinary infection. It was a source of great comfort and satisfaction to Rosalind in her later years to know that another group of clinicians and microbiologists was conducting research focused on this problem and that their findings supported her own hypothesis that urine is not sterile in the absence of clinically significant infection.

Away from the laboratory and clinic, she was governor of a number of local secondary schools and devoted any spare time to gardening. She was a voracious reader with a particular appetite for political biography and a keen eye for any lapses in grammar or punctuation. Predeceased by John, she was survived by her son Giles, a radiologist, and daughter Genevieve, a horticulturalist.

Giles Maskell

[BMJ 2016 355 6147 – accessed 14 March 2017]

(Volume XII, page web)

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