OBITUARY : Professor Geoffrey Dawes

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The Independent Online
Geoffrey Dawes, Director of the Nuffield Institute for Medical Research in Oxford for nearly 40 years, was a dominant international figure in foetal physiology.

Born in the last year of the First World War, he was the youngest offspring of the vicar of Mackworth in Derbyshire, where he grew up in the huge house, Thurlaston Grange, which was then the vicarage. After school at Repton he went up to Oxford where he gained a First Class degree in Physiology just as the Second World War began.

He completed his clinical medical training in Oxford in 1943, but was rejected for military service because of the asthma that plagued him throughout his life. Instead he joined the department of pharmacology under Professor J.H. Burns and helped to develop drugs for treating gas gangrene and for countering nerve gas exposure.

At the end of the war he continued in the field of pharmacology with a Rockefeller Travelling Fellowship in Harvard and Philadelphia before returning to a Foulerton Royal Society Research Fellowship in Oxford. But in 1948, the youthful Dawes became the first, and as it transpired the only, director of the newly-formed Nuffield Institute for Medical Research. This was one of the many direct results of Lord Nuffield's benefactions to the Oxford Medical School. The Institute's first home was in the beautiful old Radcliffe Observatory, designed by Christopher Wren and at that time recently vacated, with the removal of the entire staff and equipment of the Observatory to the brighter and clearer skies of South Africa. Although unsuitable in nearly every way for its new purpose, the building housed an energetic and fruitful team of physiologists, pharmacologists and clinicians. The far-thinking Dawes had decided that they should turn their attentions to the hitherto poorly explored field of foetal physiology, in the first instance to focus on what mechanisms controlled the foetal circulation.

There followed many investigations of the distribution and control of the foetal circulation, predominantly in the unborn lamb, at first in acute experiments and later, after the Institute moved to its new site in Headington, with chronically catheterised preparations that allowed longer-term observation and experimentation. The influence of chemoreceptors, the mechanisms that triggered the dramatic changes of birth, in particular the control of onset of breathing, were analysed in detail with constant attention to the implications for human physiology and disorders. Dawes was one of the first to observe that the foetal lamb had sleep cycles as well as breathing movements in utero, and within a short time could confirm that so did the human foetus. This led naturally to considerations of central nervous control, not only in relation to sleep state, but also heart rate variability and responses to stimulation of chemoreceptors.

A long serving Fellow of Worcester College, Dawes became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1971 and received many awards that recognised the breadth and importance of his contributions. His retirement in 1985 saddened his many friends, because no successor could be found to continue his work, so that the Nuffield Institute was closed. Nevertheless Dawes did not in any sense "retire". His mind continued to buzz with original ideas and concepts, and with delight in the unfolding of new knowledge and understanding. He was a skilled mathematician (a trait inherited from his father) and now grappled with numerical methods to describe the complexities of human foetal heart rate patterns.

His interest had been sparked by earlier work with foetal lambs, at which time he had mastered the principles of computing, then at a relatively primitive stage of development. His studies of the human foetus were made possible by the technology of non-invasive, Doppler ultrasound recording, by now a well-established part of clinical practice. He was fascinated by the need to understand the physiological mechanisms underlying the still unexplained short and long-term variations in the heart rate of the healthy human foetus and the ability to use changes induced by spontaneous hypoxaemia (a deficiency of oxygenation of the blood) to detect foetal distress in utero and so devise a clinically useful diagnostic technique.

He delighted in the new potency of desktop computing, harnessed the technology to his purpose and produced a system of measurement now used at the bedside around the obstetric departments of the world as the most precise non-invasive way of assessing the well-being of the human foetus. He was a familiar figure in the Department of Obstetrics at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, participated in clinical case conferences and continued to goad his clinical colleagues for their mindless preference for subjective impressions rather than objective numerical measurements of foetal heart rate patterns. Papers, letters, and reviews flowed from his pen - more than 20 since 1990 alone. He had a terse synoptic style of writing, clear and economical; sometimes he had to be reminded that his readers' minds were not as quick and logical as his own and so be persuaded to insert what he considered to be unnecessary elaboration and explanation.

He retained astonishing vigour, openness to new ideas, a precise and detailed memory and an unremitting dislike for thoughtlessness and ignorance. His encounters with the lat- ter stimulated his asthmatic wheeziness, so it was a familiar signal of his mood when he angrily had to use his inhaler. He enjoyed attending inter- national meetings, was sought as a good speaker until his final year, and cheerfully coped with the punishment of modern air travel.

He continued his hobby of fly fishing, and spent many hours developing and caring for his beautiful large garden at his home in north Oxford. There, visitors were always welcomed from every part of the world to stay, to drop in for a glass of sherry or be entertained for dinner. They found a unique ambience arising from his long and happy marriage to Margaret who he met in his first year as a Oxford undergraduate. He was proud of his large family - two sons and two daughters - and enjoyed nothing better than the occasions that drew them together. Of formidable intellect, great integrity and questing spirit, he was also a kind and humorous man.

C.W.G. Redman

Geoffrey Dawes was a foremost international authority on neo-natal physiology, writes Dr John Walker. He was educated at Repton, a school which showed unusual wisdom by making him first a member and later, in 1971, chairman of its Governing Body.

During his time at Oxford he was involved in important work in connection with his subject; he was Secretary of the British Pharmalogical Society, and Editor of the British Pharmalogical Journal. He was also a popular member of his old college, Worcester.

Dawes' combination of a rosy-cheeked face from behind which came apparent sounds of wisdom led some to suppose that there was an element of pomposity in his make-up, but you had only to observe the way the family enjoyed itself together, and the care that Geoffrey took of his wife after blindness overcame her, to see that this was an unusually happy family, and that Geoffrey was an important element in it.

Geoffrey Sharman Dawes, physiologist: born Mackworth, Derbyshire 21 January 1918; married 1941 Margaret Monk (two sons, two daughters); Fellow, Worcester College, Oxford 1946-85 (Emeritus); Director, Nuffield Institute for Medical Research, Oxford 1948-85; FRS 1971; Member, Medical Research Council 1978-82; CBE 1981; Director, Charing Cross Medical Research Centre 1984-89; died Oxford 6 May 1996.

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