Lives of the fellows

Edwin Sisterson Clarke

b.18 June 1919 d.11 April 1996
MB BS Durh(1945) MD Chicago(1946) MRCP(1949) MD(1954) FRCP(1970)

Although Edwin Clarke spent most of his professional life in South East England, he never forgot his roots further north. He was born in Felling-on-Tyne, County Durham, and received his early education in the local elementary schools and at the Jarrow Central School. His father, Joseph Clarke, was an artisan. From 1935 to 1938 he was apprenticed in pharmacy in the dispensary of the Newcastle General Hospital, at the same time taking evening classes at Rutherford Technical College. This enabled him to enter the medical school, King’s College, University of Durham, in Newcastle, in 1939.

He had a distinguished academic career, with the consequence that Clarke was one of about seventy medical students nationally chosen to expedite their clinical training in the United States, through a war-time scheme funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. From 1943 to 1945 Clarke studied at the University of Chicago, returning to take his MB BS in Durham in 1945. He was especially proud of his Chicago MD, which he received the following year.

Postgraduate posts with Sir Hugh Cairns and E M Buzzard [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.75] in Oxford, as well as two years as a graded neurological specialist in the RAMC (from 1946 to 1948) confirmed his orientation towards neurology. After a further year at the National Hospital, Queen Square, with Sir Charles Symonds [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.563], he joined Sir John McMichael’s [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.341] department of medicine at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School, Hammersmith, where he became a lecturer and consultant neurologist. A steady stream of high-quality clinical publications suggests that his future in neurology would have been bright. However, in 1958, he abandoned clinical work and became assistant scientific secretary of the Wellcome Trust. This permitted him to develop his growing interest in the history of medicine, in pursuit of which he spent two years (from 1960 to 1962) at the Institute of the History of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University. A shorter period at the University of California at Los Angeles, and a year as visiting associate professor at Yale University, completed Clarke’s American apprenticeship’ in his new discipline.

On his return to Britain in 1963, Clarke joined the staff of the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum and Library (forerunner of the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine). In 1966 the Wellcome Trust decided to encourage medical history as an academic subject and Clarke was appointed senior lecturer and head of the sub-department of the history of medicine at University College London, established by a grant from the Trust. His sub-department was located administratively within the department of anatomy, then headed by J Z Young. Clarke was promoted to a readership in 1972. During his UCL years he initiated a number of courses in medical history for medical students both at UCL and the Royal Free Hospital Medical School and supervised several young postgraduates and post-doctoral fellows in their researches on a wide variety of topics.

In 1973 Clarke was appointed director of the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, in succession to F N L Poynter. Clarke was determined to integrate more closely the Institute’s activities into the academic mainstream; he oversaw the transfer of the museum holdings to the Science Museum at South Kensington and helped create a formal academic unit within the Institute. This was in effect his old sub-department at UCL, to the headship of which I had succeeded Clarke in 1973. This development permitted the expansion of teaching and research based in the Wellcome Building, but carried out within the aegis of UCL, which controlled appointments and promotions and where academic staff in the Institute were given formal appointments. Clarke also edited the Institute’s academic journal Medical History from 1973 to 1979. He wrote almost all of the journal’s book reviews and notices himself.

Clarke unexpectedly retired from the Institute at the end of 1979. He had found the administrative and public relations work associated with the directorship increasingly uncongenial, and wanted to have more time for his own research. At the same time he was still full of energy, and in the early 1980s he created a Sherrington Room, with a library and small museum, within the department of physiology, University of Oxford. The core of the room’s library was his own outstanding collection of primary and secondary sources in the history of the neurosciences. Collecting books had long been his passion (he once remarked that he had sometimes had holes in his shoes, but had always seemed to have enough to acquire a book bargain), and in his retirement he put together a fine collection of volumes on the topography and local history of North East England. Before his death he donated this collection to the University of Newcastle.

Clarke’s historical research concentrated on the structure, functions and diseases of the nervous system. The human brain and spinal cord. A historical study illustrated by writings from antiquity to the twentieth century, Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1968, has acquired classic status. It was produced with C D O’Malley of UCLA, but Clarke contributed the lion’s share to this large volume of readings and analyses of major contributions to our knowledge of neuroscience. Clarke produced a second edition (1996) which was published about the time of his death; so extensive were the corrections, changes and additions that the volume had to be entirely re-set. His Illustrated history of brain function, Oxford, Sandford Publications, 1972, was written with his long-time friend, Kenneth Dewhurst, and has been translated into German and French. It too was republished in a second edition in 1996. Clarke’s own translation (from the German) and updating of Max Neuburger’s The historical development of experimental brain and spinal cord physiology before Flourens, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981, displayed admirably his bibliographical and textual skills; he always believed that original sources should be searched out and studied in the original language. Finally his monograph, with L S Jacyna, Nineteenth-century origins of neuroscientific concepts, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1987, is a rich study of the establishment of the modern neurobiological framework during the first half of the nineteenth century.

In addition to more than fifty historical papers written on a variety of topics, Clarke edited a seminal collection of essays on Modern methods in the history of medicine, London, Athlone Press, 1971. At the time of his death, he had almost completed a study of the development of medical history as a discipline. It is not certain whether this will ever be published, but a transcript has been placed in the library of the Wellcome Institute.

Clarke could be a difficult man to get close to. Those who managed found a congenial, loyal and witty friend, and even casual acquaintances could admire his impressive rhythm on the dance floor at Institute parties. Although he played a seminal role in the evolution of academic medical history in Britain, he was never entirely comfortable with the social-historical emphasis which characterizes the modern discipline. Any diffidence was entirely inappropriate, for his scholarship possessed the timeless qualities of accuracy and care. Although he seemed never to age, his final illness, pancreatic carcinoma, did its work with depressing speed.

W F Bynum

[Brit.med.J.,1996,312,1666; The Guardian, 22 Apr 1996; The Times, 11 May 1996; Medical History, 40,1996,499-501]

(Volume X, page 63)

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