Lives of the fellows

Edward Alfred Cockayne

b.3 October 1880 d.28 November 1956
OBE(1954) BM BCh Oxon(1907) DM Oxon(1912) MRCP(1920) FRCP(1916)

E. A. Cockayne was born at Sheffield, the son of Edward Shepherd Cockayne and Mary Florence Cockayne, daughter of Joseph Clixby, of Owmby Cliff, Lincolnshire, who after her husband’s death married Lord Haddo, later Marquess of Aberdeen, one of her son’s friends at Oxford.

Cockayne was educated at Charterhouse School, Balliol College, Oxford, and St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, where he held the Brackenbury scholarship in medicine. He became house physician at St. Bartholomew’s and then at the Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street, casualty physician at Bart’s, and medical registrar at the Middlesex Hospital. In 1913 he was appointed physician to out-patients at the Middlesex and joined the staff of the Victoria Hospital for Children, Tite Street.

In 1919 he left Tite Street on being appointed physician to out-patients at the Great Ormond Street Hospital. Here he had to wait until 1934 to become a full physician with charge of beds although he had reached this rank at the Middlesex ten years earlier.

In the First World War he served in the Royal Navy from 1915 to 1919, and was at Archangel during the Russian revolution. At the outbreak of the Second ‘the quaint panicky ramifications of the Emergency Medical Service sequestrated his exceptional talents in a gloomy workhouse on the outskirts of Aylesbury’. It was not a happy translation and did not last.

In 1945 he became consultant physician to both of his hospitals; in 1947, when he presented his entomological collection to the Natural History Museum, South Kensington, he was invited to become assistant curator of the Rothschild Zoological Museum at Tring. Entomology occupied his declining years on the whole happily, although he was increasingly racked by arthritis. He was pleased to be awarded the O.B.E. in 1954 for services to entomology, but thought his services to medicine had been comparatively undervalued.

He became president of the section for the study of diseases of children of the Royal Society of Medicine in 1938, and was vice-president of the corresponding section at the annual meeting of the British Medical Association in 1928. In 1937 he gave the Bradshaw lecture at the College on the genetics of transposition of the viscera.

In entomology he reached top rank as president of the Royal Society of Entomology from 1943 to 1945. In this field he studied the biology, variation and genetics of British butterflies and moths. At Tring he built up a collection of an entirely new kind, showing not only the complete known range of variation within each species, but also all that was known of their genetics. He constantly added to it rare and historical specimens at his own expense until it consisted of about 50,000 selected specimens, which would have found a ready market if offered through the usual commercial channels.

In his will he left more than £5,000 and his own water colours to the trustees of the British Museum, as well as money and books to entomological societies. Yet the considerable residue went to medicine: £500 to the College and the rest to the Royal Society of Medicine, where his name was honoured by the opening of the Cockayne Suite in 1963.

Cockayne never married. He was slightly built, shyly genial, irritable, and on occasion fierce. His flat under the roof-tops of Westbourne Terrace was furnished with cabinets of dead insects and jars of living caterpillars. His impact on medical students was slight, his private practice meagre. By house physicians and registrars he was respected, revered and in a cautious way loved. There was something bird-like about him, but one never knew which bird to expect: the eagle, the raven, the sparrow, even the dove. Yet, while he was the foremost diagnostic paediatrician of his age, treatment hardly interested him. One was not expected to telephone him about a patient.

Cockayne observed phenomena and thought about them. In 1911 he had catarrhal jaundice; his first important contribution to medicine was a learned and reasoned thesis that simple catarrhal jaundice was the sporadic form of epidemic catarrhal jaundice, and that both were caused by an infective agent which was also the cause of most cases of acute yellow atrophy of the liver (Quart. J. Med.f 1912-13, 6, 1-28). He was a lovable, difficult, diffident scholar, who left two monuments, one in the Natural History Museum and the other in his library of medical classics.

Richard R Trail

[, 1956, 2, 1370 (p); Lancet, 1956. 2, 1220; Times, 30 Nov., 6 Dec. 1956.]

(Volume V, page 76)

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