Obituary: Dr R. W. Torrance

Click to follow
R. W. TORRANCE was known by physiologists throughout the world for his research and writings on the arterial chemoreceptors of the carotid bodies, tiny organs which sense the oxygen in the arterial blood and stimulate breathing when it falls. To Oxford undergraduates he was a large, warm- hearted man and a highly perceptive teacher.

He was born in 1923, in Wolverhampton, where his father taught physics to the sixth form of a local school. When the family moved to Yorkshire in the 1930s, Torrance attended Bradford Grammar School, going through the middle school on the classical side. Attracted to the idea of becoming a doctor, he switched to sciences in the sixth form, but finding chemistry "rather dull" he concentrated on maths and physics, winning a Hastings Scholarship to Queen's College, Oxford, in 1941.

At Queen's he read Physiology and Medicine and after gaining first class honours in Physiology in 1945, he was encouraged by Professor J.H. Burn to spend a year doing research. After a rather unproductive term in the department of Pharmacology, he migrated to Physiology, where his work moved forward rapidly under the supervision of Dr (later Professor) David Whitteridge. Noting that being born in Staffordshire made Torrance eligible for a Fereday Fellowship at St John's College, Whitteridge encouraged him to apply and he was duly elected in 1946.

Torrance planned to use the fellowship to investigate the recent report of L. Leskell concerning the motor innervation of the muscle spindles (1945). The college, however, had other ideas. Its governing body was anxious to find a suitable replace-ment for their medical tutor, C.G. Douglas, and persuaded Torrance to use the fellowship to qualify in Medicine with a view to taking over the tutorship. He agreed to do so and after clinical studies at University College Hospital, six months as a house physician to Sir Francis Walshe and two years in the Royal Army Medical Corps, he became Fellow and medical tutor at St John's in 1952.

In addition to his college duties, Torrance became departmental demonstrator with teaching duties and a small research laboratory in the University Laboratory of Physiology. In the six years since his election to the Fereday fellowship, several groups had started to investigate the properties of motor innervation of muscle spindles, so he decided to examine the properties of sensory nerves arising with receptors in the lungs and blood vessels.

His first substantial piece of research, however, was carried out on haemodynamics with another recent appointee to the department, Jean Banister. In a series of well-planned experiments they demonstrated unambiguously how blood flow through the lungs is influenced by the pressures in the air passages. Their single paper describing this was followed by a flurry of work in the United States for the phenomenon had important applications in medicine. With the paper in press, Torrance took a year's sabbatical leave in the US and here he met Margaret Aspinwall, who became his wife.

On his return to Oxford in 1960 Torrance started to work on arterial chemoreceptors and over the next 15 years he and his students reported some of their most important properties. They described the responses to steady and rapidly changing stimuli and demonstrated that impulses from the chemoreceptors only have reflex effects on the rate and depth of breathing during the time when the animal or person is breathing in. This phenomenon appears to be general for all stimuli to breathing transmitted to the brain by sensory nerves. It reflects the restraints on the nerve cells which regulate the movements necessary for each breath.

Apart from experimental work, Torrance generated a wider interest in arterial chemoreceptors through a symposium which he organised in 1966 and through his many scholarly reviews. In these he developed ideas about mechanism analytically, comparing the predictions with published observations.

The ability to review areas in a broad yet analytical way was one of the things that made Bob Torrance an excellent tutor. But his most attractive quality was his generosity and the genuine warmth of his manner. A very large man (he was 6ft 5in and at times approached 20 stones), he showed gentleness and consideration to others. He was particularly good with young people, finding common experiences or allegiances. He enjoyed talking and listening and, faced with progressive deafness from early middle age, approached it stoically and uninhibitedly, producing the microphone of his hearing aid to be spoken into if he had difficulty following the conversation.

He also delighted in being a Fellow of St John's. His pleasure increased when the college repossessed St Giles House, formerly the Judges' Lodgings in Oxford. Torrance moved his teaching room there, appreciating that with its elegant garden and being almost adjacent to the college, it was a wonderful place to entertain pupils, colleagues and friends. There can be few who taught medicine in Oxford in the 1970s and 1980s who did not enjoy the Torrances' hospitality.

Bob Torrance retired as an Emeritus Fellow in 1990 and continued to think and to write on a range of physiological subjects. He presented his last paper to the Physiological Society in September 1998.

Robert William Torrance, physiologist: born 4 September 1923; Fellow, St John's College, Oxford 1946-90 (Emeritus), medical tutor 1952-90; Departmental Demonstrator, University Laboratory of Physiology, Oxford University 1952- 58, University Lecturer 1958-90; married 1960 Margaret Aspinwall (two sons); died Oxford 8 January 1999.