Lives of the fellows

Kenneth John Collins

b.19 February 1929 d.7 October 2017
BSc Lond(1954) DPhil Oxon(1960) MRCS LRCP(1973) MB BS Lond(1974) MRCP(1985) FRCP(1992)

Ken Collins was a clinical physiologist. As a physiology graduate he joined a Medical Research Council (MRC) unit in Oxford in 1954 investigating human thermoregulation and heat illness. Later he qualified in medicine at Guy’s, developed an interest in tropical medicine, and was for over a decade involved with the London-Khartoum schistosomiasis project. In the 1970s he set up a new MRC unit at St Pancras Hospital in London, when urban hypothermia was regarded as a major threat to public health, and as a member of various World Health Organization (WHO) task groups contributed to a wider recognition of the health effects of environmental temperature. He was an honorary senior clinical lecturer and honorary consultant at University College and Middlesex School of Medicine until the early 1990s and continued to write and lecture for a decade or more following his retirement in 1994.

Born in Highbury, London, Ken Collins was the younger son of George William John Collins, a Post Office engineer, and his wife, Edith Clara Collins. Keen on classical music, ballroom dancing, nature and sport, he was educated during the Second World War at Wembley County Grammar School. On National Service he spent 18 months in the Intelligence Corps based in Trieste, and a lifelong love of (most) things Italian ensued. On demobilisation in 1949 he undertook a degree at University College London (UCL) in botany, one of his first, and enduring, loves. During ancillary courses he came into contact with UCL physiologists, and one afternoon, examining fungi in the botany laboratory, he realised that this was not the life for him: what he actually wanted was to be a human physiologist.

A variety of part-time jobs assisted in financing these extra years at UCL – in Selfridges’ book department, night portering at Paddington station and even lifeguarding on Fistral Beach in Newquay.

Following his graduation in 1954, he married Adèle Fox, a nurse at the Westminster Children’s Hospital, and took up a job as a research assistant to Joe Weiner [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.592] in an MRC unit in Oxford, which was then pioneering much top-class human applied physiology research. His first project was to explore the endocrine basis of human reactions to heat.

After the publication of many abstracts and papers, mostly on heat stress, it was suggested he take the DPhil at Oxford and he joined Merton College. Among many ‘firsts’ in these productive years were the discovery of nerve sensitisation in the skin by high concentrations of neurotransmitters, the mechanism of axon reflexes, the causation of ‘hidromeiosis’ (previously known as heat fatigue) and much of the basis for heat acclimatisation. A two-month post-doctorate lecture tour of the USA followed.

In 1963, the Oxford MRC unit moved to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), and he relocated his young family to Guildford, Surrey. In July 1967, he led a five-week project on board the Esso tanker Newcastle to study the effect of heat on crews. Another ‘botany lab moment’ occurred following the voyage, during which he had acted – in the absence of anyone suitably qualified – as ship’s doctor. It had already occurred to him that sometimes useful research facts did not emerge from unpublished work until the point of application became clear. It seemed to him – and he now suspected he might have an aptitude for it – that training in clinical medicine would help.

Following his second MB in 1970, the full-time three-year Guy’s clinical course was financed by a part-time post as scientific coordinator of the International Biological Program, and from a project grant from the MRC for work on diabetes at Guy’s. After qualifying in 1973, he returned to the LSHTM and became involved with the London-Khartoum schistosomiasis project, including fieldwork in Sudan from December 1973 to March 1974. When he returned again to the LSHTM it was as assistant director to Joe Weiner.

In the late 1970s the Saudi Ministry of Health asked the group at the LSHTM for help in devising a method to treat the large number of cases of heatstroke occurring at the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. This resulted in the development of a body cooling unit, which was installed along the route of the Hajj and greatly diminished the incidence of heatstroke deaths.

Always caring of older members of family and society, and with his background of human temperature regulation, hypothermia also became an important preoccupation. Hypothermia: the facts (Oxford, Oxford University Press) was published in 1983 and there were many subsequent visits to deliver papers and talks around the world.

Appointed a ‘recognised teacher’ in the 1980s, he taught regularly for the second MB BS at the London Hospital, and on the MSc applied physiology course at King’s. As director of the MRC autonomic group at St Pancras he oversaw development of a ‘lower body negative pressure box’ for testing postural hypotension. In these years he collaborated on a series of textbooks on autonomic failure and in 1989 contributed to the WHO working group on the health effects of global warming.

Described by his peers as ‘a true gentleman of physiology’, he retired in 1994 after 20 years in medical research and 20 in medicine. There were some consultancies in his retirement years, such as heat stress on passengers in the London Underground, and his lecturing continued unabated at Guy’s and UCL.

His beloved garden, music and family were his support and outlets, whether working or retired. It was entirely typical that he devotedly cared for Adèle during the illness of her final years and, following her death in 2011, he remained closely involved in the lives of his three children and five grandchildren, one of whom began studying medicine in 2015 – most fittingly, at UCL.

Jo Marshall-Collins

[BMJ 2017 359 5489 – accessed 19 March 2018; Extrem Physiol Med. 2018; 7: 1 – accessed 19 March 2018]

(Volume XII, page web)

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