Obituary: Professor Charles Shute

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The Independent Culture
CHARLES SHUTE, with his Cambridge University colleague Peter Lewis, created pioneering maps of the cholinergic pathways - the pathways in the brain which carry the chemical acetycholine, which with noradrenaline was thought to influence brain activity - in the rat brain. Their work set a precedent for the creation of maps of a whole range of chemicals within the brain, and thereby placed the emerging discipline of psychopharmacology on a sound footing.

Shute was enigmatic, highly intelligent and, for much of his life, a restless man. For someone like myself who knew him best during his time as a mature scientist, his early life was a mystery. One knew that he had been educated at Eton; the occasional wearing of the tie on formal occasions and the languid voice attested to that. But one was unaware that he had been isolated from his parents since the age of two, and of the startling fact that his mother had married six times.

He entered King's College, Cambridge, as an Exhibitioner in Mathematics, but he read English, and switched to philosophy ("Moral Sciences", as it was called) in his final year, 1939. He was a conscientious objector in the Second World War, and served with the Friends' Ambulance Service, whence arose the interest in medicine.

He then returned to Cambridge as a medical student, completing his course at the Middlesex Hospital in 1946, where he remained for two further years as a surgical resident. National Service with the Royal Army Medical Corps involved specialisation in ear, nose and throat work.

That interest continued when, in 1951, he joined the anatomy department at the London Hospital Medical College where his head of department was the formidable Professor James Dixon Boyd. Shute worked initially with Angus Bellairs on the comparative anatomy of the bones of the jaw and the ear, tracing the evolution of jaw bones into the tiny ossicles of the mammalian middle ear.

The following year, Dixon Boyd moved to Cambridge to become Professor of Anatomy, and Shute went with him.

Medical and veterinary students in the Sixties were mystified at the emphasis placed in elementary anatomy courses on amphibian and reptilian jaw-bones, enthusiastically taught by Shute as if the subject were, in modern terminology, "core-material". It was years before I understood why this recondite stuff had been presented to us: Shute was keen to share his enthusiasms with any audience, especially, perhaps, a captive one.

For many, his enthusiasm was infectious. Research students from the Commonwealth left Cambridge to teach anatomy all over the world; I found it poignant, when visiting Sierra Leone as an external examiner in 1991, to discover medical students in Freetown struggling to remember the names of the reptilian jaw bones that their Professor, the late Adesanya Grillo, must himself have learned from Shute some 35 years earlier.

In the late Fifties, Shute's research moved in a different direction. He teamed up with Peter Lewis, a self-effacing Oxford-trained chemist who had proved a valuable partner to Richard Keynes in elegant experiments on ion movements across the squid nerve fibre. When Lewis came to Anatomy, Dixon Boyd encouraged him to develop new techniques in histochemistry - the study of the localisation of specific chemicals in organic tissues.

Shute and Lewis together developed a method for staining acetylcholinesterase in slices of brain tissue, the enzyme which destroys acetylcholine, the first-discovered neurotransmitter. Shute wrote later: "In student days I was inspired by the work of my teacher and supervisor Dr W. Feldberg on release of acetylcholine by nerve endings on muscle, and since that time I have hoped that cholinergic nerves might also be shown to occur wholly within the central nervous system. "

Although Shute himself acknow-ledged that the initial staining technique was "not completely specific" for cholinergic pathways, the work was later validated when they developed a method for detecting a more specific enzyme concerned in the synthesis of acetycholine.

Shute was keen to break down the barriers between the study of structure and function, both in research and in teaching. This created tensions between himself and colleagues of a more conservative temperament. When, in the early Seventies, as Faculty Board Chairman, he attempted to modernise the medical curriculum (so radically as to bring it to a state that the General Medical Council would now regard as antediluvian), he initially failed to win over the opposition.

He had by then moved to a Chair in Histology in the Physiological Laboratory, where conversations with visual physiologists such as Fergus Campbell sparked an interest in a phenomena involving colour vision, the McCollough Effect, which Shute described as "one of the most extraordinary and mysterious of all visual phenomena ". He probed the phenomenon, hoping to establish it as a marker of changing levels of activity in chemically characterised neural pathways.

Again Shute wanted undergraduates to share in his enthusiasms, and what might have been conventional histology classes were dominated by rat brains stained for acetylcholinesterase, together with plentiful demonstrations of his beloved McCollough Effect; students, by then less reticent, would ask, "Do we really have to know this?"

Shute also took an interest in other optical curiosities, and wrote in the journal Weather on the "blue moon phenomenon" and "the formation of a glory". These activities all harmonise with Shute's dedication of his monograph The McCollough Effect (1979) "to all those who love to observe, measure, calculate and think".

Shute was first married in 1947 to Patricia Doran, who died in 1952. He was then married for 26 years to Wendy Harwood, and they had a son and three daughters. It was an unconventional household - full of strong characters who were often enormous fun, but who also could be a bit of a handful. After a divorce in 1980, he married Gay Robins, who was the Wallis Budge Research Fellow in Egyptology at Christ's College, where Shute had been a Fellow since 1957.

This relationship kindled in Shute an enthusiasm for Egyptology which went far beyond dabbling. The Egyptologist Professor Harry Smith, a Fellow at Christ's in the Sixties, recalls that, after retiring from his Cambridge professorship, "Shute threw himself heart and mind into Gay's Egyptological and art- historical interests."

They collaborated on papers on topics ranging from "human stature as revealed by prehistoric Egyptian skeletons - in which Shute's expert knowledge of human anatomy was crucial - through various aspects of sculpture and painting to the influence of Egyptian Wisdom texts on Greek literature".

Their work on the ancient Egyptian canon of proportion revived Shute's early interest in mathematics, and together, in 1987, they published a new analysis of the arithmetical problems in the famous Rhind Mathematical Papyrus at the British Museum, which has become a standard work.

His wife's appointment to a post in ancient art history at Emory University led to their removal to Atlanta, Georgia, where Shute spent the last 10 years of his life fruitfully and happily conducting tours round the galleries of ancient art at Emory University Museum and collaborating in his wife's researches which, to his joy, led to her promotion to a full professorship in 1998.

To the end, he maintained his dry wit, his incisiveness of mind and exceptional range of interests in the natural sciences and the humanities.

After the move, Charles Shute returned to England only seldom, and my last sight of him was in his seventies walking hand-in-hand with Gay through the streets of Cambridge. He seemed very content.

Charles Cameron Donald Shute, histologist and Egyptologist: born London 23 May 1917; otologist, Royal Army Medical Corps 1947-49; Demonstrator and Lecturer in Anatomy, London Hospital Med-ical College 1951-52; University Demonstrator and Lecturer in Anatomy, Cambridge University 1952-69; Fellow of Christ's College, Cambridge 1957-99; Professor of Histology, Department of Physiology, Cambridge University 1969-84 (Emeritus); married 1947 Patricia Cameron (died 1952), 1954 Wendy Harwood (one son, three daughters; marriage dissolved 1980), 1980 Gay Robins; died Atlanta, Georgia 2 January 1999.