Lives of the fellows

Andrew Hurst Henderson

b.25 September 1930 d.8 June 2017
OBE(2009) BA Cantab(1953) MB BChir(1958) MRCP(1962) FRCP(1977) FESC(1988)

Andrew Henderson was professor of cardiology at the University of Wales’ College of Medicine. Of Scottish extraction on his father’s side, he was born and brought up in London. His father, Frederic Ewart Henderson, was an electrical engineer who served during the First World War in Belgium and wrote the Army’s textbook on radio valves in the Second World War. He was also a keen photographer and watercolourist who sowed the seeds of Andrew’s lifelong interest in painting. His mother was Muriel Henderson née Dodwell. Andrew boarded at Caldicott Preparatory School and then Aldenham School. These were happy times – he remembered being relatively self-sufficient during holidays at home, making model boats, drawing and playing tennis.

After leaving school, he carried out his National Service as a second lieutenant in the Royal Corps of Signals, and then went on to Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge to read natural sciences. He was encouraged by the professor of botany to start a research project counting hairs on thyme leaves, but, unsurprisingly, this led to a critical personal review of future options, culminating in a switch to read medicine, which included a fourth year at Cambridge. He went on to St Thomas’s Hospital Medical School, where he balanced his loves of landscape painting, light entertainment and hockey with the rigours of the medical curriculum.

He went on to hold a number of junior hospital posts in general medicine, neurology, chest diseases and gastroenterology with clinical research posts in haematology and gastroenterology. As a senior registrar in Bristol, he recalled being asked whether he envisaged a NHS or an academic career and not understanding the question!

A chance social meeting in Banbury with a visiting cardiologist helped him realise that he was belatedly ready for a period of laboratory-based research in the States. Cardiology (which happened to be almost the only medical specialty he had not experienced) seemed most appropriate and he was given the names of three leading research-orientated cardiologists. On returning to Bristol that evening, he was invited to dinner by his consultant, Howard ‘Taffy’ Davies [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.143], to meet a visiting friend from America. By an extraordinary coincidence, the visitor turned out to be Dick Gorlin, the first name on the list of recommendations. A research fellowship at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital (Harvard Medical School) was arranged.

A novice to laboratory research, Andrew was left to develop and pursue his own research interests. Initially he studied the effects of mechanical loading on myocardial hypertrophy in Langendorff-perfused rat hearts in Gorlin’s lab, and then investigated myocardial mechanics and excitation-contraction coupling in papillary muscle preparations together with Dirk Brutsaert, in Edmund Sonnenblick’s lab. They made some fundamental contributions to the understanding of contractile mechanisms in heart muscle. Sadly, the only copy of his fully completed PhD thesis was stolen from the back seat of his open top sports car and was hence never presented for the degree, nevertheless, his outstanding studies were published as a series of papers and attracted significant numbers of citations by other authors.

On returning to the UK as a senior registrar to the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital, he was found to have carcinoma of the bladder, radiotherapy for which left him out of action for two years. He survived thanks to the devoted care of his new wife Rhiannon (Non) née Price. When he returned to work, he contemplated re-training for a career in geriatric medicine, but he was invited to join the new academic department of cardiology in Wales in 1973 as a senior lecturer, enabling him to return to clinical work and continue research. He became acting head of department when the founding chair holder resigned in 1977. In 1979, he was appointed to the re-established chair as head of department – an independent chair which, in 1980, was endowed by the British Heart Foundation as the Sir Thomas Lewis chair.

At Cardiff he had time to continue being productive in the area of heart mechanics, publishing excellent papers with Dirk Brutsaert in Belgium and later with the help of Lynda Blayney. The predominantly myocardial research programme was subsequently extended to include the relatively unexplored field of vascular biology as relevant to cardiovascular disease and clinical cardiology. Together with Tudor Griffith and Malcolm Lewis, Andrew began to work on the mysterious endothelium derived relaxing factor (EDRF) that had only been discovered a couple of years previously by Robert F Furchgott and John Zawadzki. Amongst many other studies, they made four critical discoveries that have become textbook material: firstly, that EDRF is increased by fast flowing blood; secondly it is decreased by high blood cholesterol; thirdly, it is decreased in human subjects by high blood pressure; and finally, they showed that EDRF inhibits platelet activation and therefore reduces the severity of blood clotting, which underlies a heart attack.

During this time, Andrew organised the first two international congresses on EDRF, in Chepstow. These congresses were attended by everyone important in what was to become a huge field and included those who subsequently gained the Nobel prize for finding that EDRF was in fact the gas, nitric oxide. Later on, Andrew focused on studies of nitric oxide in patients.

Much of his time was taken up, however, by championing the development of cardiac services in Wales, which were scandalously inadequate in those days, with less than one cardiologist per million population. This proved frustratingly difficult. A joint planning committee was set up by the Welsh Office but ground to a halt. The only response was the establishment of Heart Beat Wales, a small, evangelically enthusiastic health promotion group, to which he was attached in a steering capacity until it was abandoned a few years later. Meanwhile he initiated regular meetings of physicians responsible for patients with cardiac problems throughout Wales – meetings which evolved into the Welsh Cardiovascular Society. New consultant cardiology posts in Wales were eventually created in two specialty centres in South Wales and in district general hospitals with junior posts in the specialty centres.

Paediatric cardiology in Wales had been provided along with adult cardiology by Leslie Graham Gwynfyn ‘L G’ Davies [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VIII, p.124] until his premature death. A paediatric cardiac service was planned as an intrinsic component of the development of cardiac services in Wales. These plans were then abruptly rescinded, for no obvious reason, and replaced by a (then novel) contractual commitment to Bristol for paediatric cardiac surgery. Having worked in Bristol, Andrew was aware that its paediatric cardiac surgery was on a learning curve and that there were concerns (undocumented) about its surgical performance. He had to draw this to the notice of the Welsh Office to be properly evaluated. A letter was sent confidentially to the chief medical officer (as subsequently became public during the Bristol Heart Inquiry). Plans to establish a paediatric cardiac service in Wales were re-instated and, gratifyingly, results became among the best in the UK.

His persistence in developing cardiac services in the face of political apathy eventually resulted in the award of an OBE, but only, as he said, after all the politicians he had had to antagonise in the process had disappeared.

He served on committees at the Medical Research Council and also wrote a report for the Council on the future of cardiovascular research in the UK. He was chairman of the specialist advisory committee of the UK Royal Colleges for cardiovascular training and of the British Society for Cardiovascular Research, and was the first chairman of the working group on atherosclerosis of the European Society of Cardiology.

Another of Andrew’s dreams was to build a Welsh Heart Research Institute at the Heath Hospital and he recruited the Welsh bass-baritone, Sir Geraint Evans, as patron of the charitable trust he set up for this purpose. With massive support from D H Davies and many others, the Institute was funded and built, although, sadly, it was completed only after Andrew’s retirement.

Overall, he recognised how fortunate he had been throughout his career – a golden age which coincided with major cardiovascular advances and an outstanding team. This enabled him personally to participate interactively in the research and to explore its wider implications while fulfilling the privileges of clinical practice and teaching with their related responsibilities. His research team benefitted from being a small and flexible group free from the managerial controls that can constrain professional and scientific priorities.

Retirement provided the opportunity for more serious painting. He was particularly interested in the work of 20th century artists (including Morandi, Ivon Hitchens and David Bomberg). A small cerebrovascular embolic episode in 2011 prevented further driving, but little else as his hemianopia was fortunately left-sided. He was diagnosed with a neuroendocrine pancreatic tumour in 2014. He was survived by Non, whom he married in 1970, their three daughters, Elin, Anna and Nia, and four granddaughters. He will be remembered as an excellent scientist, a dedicated cardiologist, an inspirational leader, a demanding but sympathetic mentor and a dependable friend.

Elin Henderson
Andrew Henderson
Andrew C Newby

[British Heart Foundation News archive BHF pays tribute to Professor Andrew Henderson OBE 15 June 2017 – accessed 6 September 2018; Eur Heart J. 2017 Oct 7;38(38):2865-2866 – accessed 6 September 2018]

(Volume XII, page web)

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