Obituary: L. F. Lamerton

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The Independent Culture
L. F. LAMERTON was a scientist who made a successful transition from physics to biology and made significant contributions both to the physics of radiotherapy treatment and to the cell kinetics of renewal systems.

A graduate of the University College of Southampton, he joined the physics group under Professor W.V. Mayneord at the Royal Cancer Hospital in Fulham Road, London, in 1938, aged 23. After a four-year period with the RAF doing operational research he returned to the Physics Department at the Cancer Hospital.

The post-war years were exciting times in medical physics. Advances in electronics were transforming the instrumentation of radiation detection while in the new field of the applications of radio-isotopes to medicine there were many potential advances to be explored both in diagnosis and therapy. At the same time concerns about nuclear fall-out and possible nuclear war plus the burgeoning uses of radiations in commerce and medicine brought a sharpened interest in the effects of internal and external radiation on living systems. When in 1955 the United Nations organised the first of two meetings on the peaceful uses of atomic energy, a scientific secretary with a good appreciation of the broad diversity of applications was sought. Lamerton was chosen for this post.

The Institute of Cancer Research was set up by London University in 1951 in association with the Royal Marsden (formerly Cancer) Hospital. Given the opportunity to open new fields of research, Lamerton chose to start investigations in the area of radiation biology. Much early radiobiology was descriptive rather than analytical so that physicists were attracted into the field to bring some mathematical rigour. However, physical scientists who venture into biological disciplines must be aware of their ignorance of the complexity and interactivity of systems and that the tools they bring must be applied with discretion and humour.

Lamerton possessed the necessary sceptical approach to the use of mathematical models and saw that numbers must be coaxed, not squeezed, out of living organisms. But the plea of "biological variation" was no excuse for sloppy work.

Working in a converted orphanage at Belmont in Surrey, Lamerton built up a research team of medical and natural scientists to study radiation effects on systems of the body, namely bone marrow and intestine, whose ability to continue cell division indefinitely is essential for life. It is an interesting observation that studies of the effects of radiation on living systems necessitated some pioneering studies of "normal" biology.

The elucidation of patterns of cell division from bone marrow, lymphatic and gut stem lines by workers at the ICR and other laboratories was a more important contribution to science than the measurement of radiation effects on these systems.

I remember the first precious batches of tritiated thymidine, an essential marker for cell kinetic studies, being brought, or more truthfully, smuggled in from the United States. The various organs of the recipient mice and rats were carefully dissected and distributed to the members of the research team for microscopic studies. There was also a special tiered unit, built rather like a mini arena, where rats could be exposed continuously to low-dose rates to mimic the exposure levels experienced during work in artificial radiation environments in industry and medicine. Those of us who were privileged to be members of the team flourished under Lamerton's critical but kindly oversight.

Our understandings were also enhanced as leading scientists of other nations came to work for short periods in the laboratory. We were enriched by more than just scientific experience, as on the occasion when a visiting pathologist decided that an outing to the Derby at nearby Epsom would be of more benefit to us than listening to his lecture on the micro-structure of the gut. In return, Lamerton's travels ensured good links with units doing complementary studies in other countries and the possibility for some of us of a post-doctoral fellowship abroad.

In 1960 London University appointed Lamerton to the Chair of Professor of Biophyics Applied to Medicine at the institute and he continued to enhance his international reputation with membership of a series of important scientific committees and with lectures to international seminars and conferences - always well spiced with wit. The scientific content of such lectures was often discussed at departmental meetings with even the most humble of us present.

He was elected President of the British Institute of Radiology for 1957/58 and of the Hospital Physicists' Association for 1961/62. He was invited to give a number of prestigious lectures and was elected Fellow of the Royal College of Pathologists in 1972 - some achievement for one with a first degree in Physics. He became Dean of the Institute of Cancer Research in 1967 and took over the Directorship from 1977 until retirement in 1980. We were all surprised and delighted when in 1965 he married Morag A. McLeod, who was the matron of the Royal Marsden Hospital.

To list Len Lamerton's scientific achievement is but part of the story. He was a great human being - a large man in every way. He was patient and courteous to give time and advice to a new physics graduate who aspired to a career in medical physics. He was always good company and I recall a meeting in Cortina d'Ampezzo, in Italy, where Len held court on the balcony of his hotel overlooking the main street. Passing scientists were hailed and invited to join the party.

He had many interests apart from science. He enjoyed making and listening to music. As a young sportsman he took up rowing and hockey and then pursued the golf ball with equal enthusiasm as he grew older. In retirement he worked for the Samaritans and taught philosophy to fortunate students at local branches of the University of the Third Age. Perhaps the Scottish term for physics - natural philosophy - best describes his scientific work and his reflective but benevolent outlook on life.

Leonard Frederick Lamerton, biophysicist: born 1 July 1915; Professor of Biophysics as Applied to Medicine, London University 1960- 80; Dean, Institute of Can- cer Research, London 1967-77, Director 1977-80; married 1965 Morag A. MacLeod; died London 19 September 1999.