Lives of the fellows

Cedric Oswald Carter

b.26 September 1917 d.12 March 1984
BM BCh Oxon(1942) MRCP(1948) FRCP(1964) MA(1965) DM(1966)

Cedric Carter was a highly respected medical geneticist. He revered intelligence; perhaps not shrewdness nor physical insight, but the sort that would help to score 160 points on the IQ scale and help to solve intricate puzzles. He believed, I think, in the concept of a ‘central intelligence’ that could be measured and he thought and wrote a good deal about the inheritance of that quality. If he had a quiet passion then it was for positive eugenics and nothing gave him more pleasure than to note the tendency for Social Class I families to have more children. Indeed, he thought it was the duty of those with higher intelligence to pass these genes on to the next generation and this, combined with his love for children, contributed to his own family of seven.

Cedric understood and made contributions to many of the difficult concepts in genetics. Polygenic or multifactorial inheritance particularly intrigued him. His work on the clinical consequences or polygenic inheritance has been universally accepted and the ‘Carter effect’ - the risk of recurrence in sibs is higher after the birth of the rarely affected sex - has been included in textbooks on genetics. This gave him enormous pleasure.

He founded the UK Clinical Genetic Society and joined Fraser Roberts (q.v.) to run the first genetic counselling clinic in this country centered at the Hospital for Sick Children. He pioneered, with Kath Evans, the use of family studies to ascertain recurrence risks in the common congenital malformations, and he directed the MRC genetics unit, situated in the Institute of Child Health, between the years 1964 and 1982. He wrote three books: Human heredity, Baltimore, Penguin Books, 1962; The ABC of medical genetics,Boston, Little Brown, 1969; and in conjunction with T J Fairbank The Genetics of locomotor disorders, Oxford, Oxford Univ.Press, 1974. as well as hundreds of articles. It was in the nature of C O Carter to do all this unostentatiously. He never gave hasty judgements and his collected works will stand as an accurate reference for many decades. His unemotional attitude exasperated many who visited the unit, and it could be disconcerting to have a conversation with him on a difficult subject -many of his sentences would be interspersed with long silences, leaving the recipient unsure whether to wait patiently or to interject. What emerged in the end was usually accurate and to the point. Although he contributed enormously to the field of congenital malformations he often stated that he would have preferred to have devoted his life to understanding normal variations rather than abnormalities.

Carter was the son of a captain in the Royal Navy and he had an ‘old-fashioned’ idea about duty, especially in time of war. He expected others to have it too.

Almost as a preparation for retirement, he later developed an interest in palaeontology. Some evenings he would rush off to give, or attend, a lecture at the Natural History Museum. These spurts of physical energy were in evidence throughout his life. Although physically small he loved sport and was immensely proud of his Oxford blue for boxing. Towards the end of his life he cycled from the station to his home in Keston and frightened his family and colleagues by falling off twice, once landing in hospital with concussion. No amount of persuasion would convince him that he should stop, and on retirement he turned with similar gusto to long distance running.

A scientist in everything he did. Carter charted his course, his pulse, and anything else he could find to measure. He died soon after completing his first marathon, suddenly and silently. He would have wished for no better end to his life.

M Baraitser

[The Times, 17 Mar 1984; Lancet, 1984,1,692]

(Volume VIII, page 78)

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