Obituary: Professor Henry Barcroft

Henry Barcroft, physiologist: born Cambridge 18 October 1904; Lecturer in Physiology, University College London 1932-35; Dunville Professor of Physiology, Queen's University, Belfast 1935-48; Professor of Physiology, St Thomas's Hospital Medical School 1948-71 (Emeritus); FRS 1953; married 1933 Dr Bridget Ramsey (died 1990; three sons, one daughter); died London 11 January 1998.

Henry Barcroft was a distinguished physiologist who greatly extended knowledge of the nervous and chemical control of the circulation in human limbs. He was also except- ionally effective in stimulating and encouraging junior colleagues, and earnt their lasting friendship and affection.

He was born in 1904. His father was Sir Joseph Barcroft, a brilliant and charismatic Cambridge physiologist from an Irish Quaker background. His maternal grandfather, Sir Robert Ball, had been Astronomer Royal of Ireland and Professor of Astronomy at Cambridge. Henry entered King's College, Cambridge, in 1923 with an exhibition, and was awarded a double first in the Tripos examinations, and research studentships that enabled him to study circulatory problems in animals for the next two years.

He spent three years at St Mary's Hospital, London, completing his medical qualification, but decided immediately to become a scientist rather than a clinician. Within the prestigious department of physiology at University College London, he resumed his earlier animal work, but was, crucially, exposed to colleagues in other departments who were extending the application of scientific investigations to human clinical problems. Many of these colleagues subsequently assumed great importance in British medicine.

After three years at UCL Barcroft was, at the age of 30, appointed in 1935 to the Dunville Chair of Physiology at Queen's University, Belfast. It was the specific hope and expectation of the university that his appointment would stimulate research in the Faculty of Medicine. It did so.

In 1935 the staffing, accommodation and equipment at Queen's were meagre. Barcroft did have the help of recent medical graduates on short-term appointment as demonstrators, but no permanent lecturer until O.G. Edholm was appointed in 1938. The teaching duties were formidable. There were 678 students in the Medical Faculty, 43 per cent of all the students in the university. Student practical classes had to be triplicated. All these problems Barcroft overcame by rugged determination, hard work and skilful planning. To free as much time as possible for research all physiology lectures were given at 9am each weekday, including Saturday.

He now turned his full attention to human physiology, using himself, healthy volunteers and willing patients as subjects, and studied the regulation of the blood flow in the limbs. He measured flow by the non-invasive method of what is known as "venous occlusion plethysmography". This method enabled observations to be made several times a minute, which allowed fluctuations in flow to be followed.

Meticulous attention to detail was essential, and measurement of recordings was laborious, but the method served. Others had used it on humans, but Barcroft, Edholm and associates refined it and used it to determine the roles of the sympathetic nervous fibres in the constriction and dilatation of the blood vessels of skin and muscle, and the actions of adrenaline and noradrenaline and other substances on these vessels. Queen's medical graduates with an interest in research were likely to turn to the department of physiology, to join the work and to submit a thesis for the MD degree.

In 1948, Barcroft was appointed to the chair at the Sherington School of Physiology at St Thomas's Hospital Medical School in London. Legend has it that he was unable to add a floor to the building because his brother- in-law Archbishop Michael Ramsey had a right to view the Palace of Westminster from Lambeth Palace. Barcroft gathered enthusiastic co-workers, and together with H.J.C. Swan wrote the first monograph of the Physiological Society: Sympathetic Control of Human Blood Vessels, published in 1953, the shortest in the society's series of over 30 monographs, is couched in simple and direct language, and illustrated by the elegantly clear diagrams that characterise all Barcroft's papers. It has stood the test of time.

In the same year Barcroft was elected to a Fellowship of the Royal Society, and in 1957 he was appointed Chairman of the Editorial Board of the Monographs of the Physiological Society. Honorary degrees at home and abroad followed, and he was later appointed as a Wellcome Trustee. Many who worked with him or came under his influence continued in active research, and occupied chairs at the Mayo Clinic and elsewhere in North America, and in Australia, as well as in the United Kingdom.

He married Dr Bridget (Biddy) Ramsey, whom he had met at Cambridge, in 1933, and they had four children, and were a happy and most hospitable family. In retirement he faced increasing arthritic immobility with unrelenting courage and determination. He also had the support of the family, especially after the death of his beloved Biddy in 1990. In recent years, long after golf and sailing became impossible, he enjoyed researching with O.L. Wade the life and work of Admiral Beaufort, who devised the numerical wind force scale.

Barcroft's 80th birthday was celebrated at a dinner of the Physiological Society, and for his 90th 45 friends, some from North America and Europe, gathered to give him a celebratory luncheon at the Royal Society of Medicine. On 7 November 1997 he attended in good cheer and spirits the last meeting the Physiological Society was to hold at St Thomas's Hospital. At this, I.C. Roddie gave a lecture celebrating Barcroft's life's work, attesting to the scientific regard and personal affection in which he was held.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
New Articles
tvDownton Abbey Christmas special
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there