Lives of the fellows

Thomas Edward Cleghorn

b.21 December 1917 d.21 June 1992
BSc Sheff(1939) MB ChB(1942) MRCS LRCP(1942) MD(1961) MRCPath(1963) MRCP(1968) FRCPath(1964) FRCP(1973)

Tom Cleghorn was the son of George She wan Cleghorn, an engineer designer, and his wife Marion Johnson. His parents were Scottish but he was born in London and educated at High Storr’s Secondary School in Sheffield and at Sheffield University. He obtained a BSc in physiology and qualified in medicine in 1942. His first posts were as nouse surgeon at Sheffield Royal Hospital and Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham and he then joined the RAMC on a short service regular Army commission from 1942-48, which included a year in Sierra Leone.

Tom started his career in the Blood Transfusion Service in 1949 as a senior registrar/deputy director of the regional blood transfusion centre in Birmingham. His interest in blood transfusion originally stemmed from the outbreak of war in 1939 when he assisted, as a science graduate, in establishing a blood bank at the Royal Hospital, Sheffield. It was there he developed many of the grouping and matching techniques appropriate to that period, much before the discovery of the Rh blood group system.

His expertise in blood groups and in immunogenetics began in Birmingham, where he carried out pioneer investigations on the application of electrophoretic and gel diffusion techniques. In 1952 he was appointed deputy medical director to the South London Blood Transfusion Centre where he was responsible for the implementation of mass blood grouping techniques for identification of rare blood group types; he established a panel of such donors which soon became the largest and most comprehensive of its kind in the world.

This panel was called upon for special reference work and for the provision of blood for transfusion by many workers in the UK and abroad. Genetic studies on many of these donors and their families led to the discovery and characterization of a number of new blood groups, for example the Swa blood group particular to the musician, Donald Swan, and to an increase in knowledge of others such as the Miltenberger series of antigens. This knowledge led him to meet R R Race [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VIII, p.403] and Ruth Ranger of the MRC blood group unit, from whom he sought advice and with whom he cooperated for many years.

It was during this period that most of his publications on blood groups and immunogenetics were written. His interest in blood groups per se increased, concentrating on low incidence blood group antigens and antibodies which formed the basis of his MD thesis. His energy in pursuing the frequency, clinical importance, inheritance and genetic independence of these new blood groups from other blood group systems was greatly appreciated by Race and Sanger who said that it was ‘... a model for the investigation of such systems.’

As an innovator in all aspects of blood transfusion, Tom was always ahead of his time. He was one of the pioneers of the ‘plastic blood pack’ in the UK and was quick to put glass bottles into disuse. Soon after he became director of the North London Blood Transfusion Centre in 1964 he established the first voluntary plasmapheresis clinic in the country. He showed that the collection of plasma for fractionation by plasmapheresis was possible with fully voluntary altruistic blood donors. He realized that blood and plasma donors deserved public recognition and persuaded the Royal Colleges, in particular the RCP, to hold annual award ceremonies to honour the selfless contribution of voluntary donors who had given more than 100 donations of blood or plasma.

As regional transfusion director, Tom was very concerned with the safety of blood and started an independent quality assurance department dedicated to the quality control of blood derivatives. Following the advice of his friend, David Dane, a Fellow of the College, he was the first in England to introduce testing of donated blood tor hepatitis B surface antigen. Prompted to start the first department of microbiology within a regional transfusion centre, he took the only available space and converted the gate house lodge into a hepatitis testing laboratory.

His association with David Dane and the virology department at the Middlesex Hospital led to development of the first radioimmunoassay for hepatitis B to be used in the UK With the knowledge that more than 50% of carriers of hepatitis B came from the 5% of blood donors originating from tropical areas, and his concern for the safety of blood recipients, he tried to ban potential donors from areas at high risk of hepatitis B infection. For this common-sense action he was vilified, not surprisingly, as a racist and had to face a street demonstration by ethnic minorities carrying banners demanding his resignation but he refused to change his policy. At that time the public would not have understood that his approach was aimed purely at reducing the risk of infection for blood transfusion recipients and, with the increasing complexity of data on donors, donations and tests, he had the foresight to introduce automation and computerization in the 1960s.

Tom Cleghorn was well known for his witty and acerbic comments. His reply to a letter from a vicar's wife complaining about donor sessions being held on Sundays was ‘I am sorry that you cannot understand what we are trying to do; obviously the Lord would have no problems in understanding.’ He also had the ability to encourage others to work for the benefit of the blood transfusion service, to make innovations and develop new methods of testing, many of which were evaluated at his centre before coming into general use. He always acknowledged recognition when due.

He was a private man with a warm heart which he sometimes tried to hide under a hard exterior. Tom never married. After his retirement in 1980 he used to spend most of the year at his villa in Menorca. He had a brother, Arthur, whose wife Jean was a general practitioner now retired. They had a son and three daughters.

M.Contreras

[Brit.med.J., 1992,305,580]

(Volume IX, page 88)

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