Professor Gemmell Morgan

Medical biochemistry dynamo


Henry Gemmell Morgan, medical biochemist: born Dundee 25 December 1922; consultant in clinical biochemistry Dundee Royal Infirmary 1952-65; Professor of Pathological Biochemistry, Glasgow University 1965-88 (Emeritus); Chairman, Association of Clinical Biochemists (UK) 1982-85, President 1985-87; married 1949 Margaret Duncan (one daughter); died Glasgow 31 October 2006.

Gemmell Morgan was an ebullient character who built up, almost from scratch, the UK's largest medical biochemistry department. He was the only consultant chemical pathologist in Glasgow when he arrived, and when he left it had four consultants, dozens of doctors in training posts, and a large team of non-medical biochemists. His former trainees now populate the chemical pathology departments of the nation's hospitals.

He was appointed in 1966, moving from a three-month post at the falling-down Glasgow children's hospital to a department housed in a temporary building on the wrong side of Castle Street and in the path of a new motorway. There was little equipment and the staff consisted of one registrar, seven scientists, 20 technicians and two typists.

His ambition was to establish an undergraduate teaching course, postgraduate teaching and recruitment, and a research-friendly ambience that would encourage research. He immediately hit it off with staff. He told his chief technician, "All I can promise you is blood, tears, sweat and hard work." He told the lone registrar that he wanted two more consultants, four registrars and four senior registrars. She smiled wryly; he said, "Don't laugh"; she replied, "Why not?"

A week into the job, he lodged a request based on functional reasoning for a new building. Over the next two years he refined his plans after visiting labs in Scandinavia and the United States. Thanks to his efforts, a new 3,000-square-metre biochemistry department opened in 1981. By the time he retired, seven years later, the Institute of Clinical Biochemistry housed millions of pounds worth of research projects including the US-funded $25m lipid-lowering study called the West of Scotland Coronary Prevention Study. Over 22 years the department had produced 24 consultant medical biochemists including five full professors, and many top-grade and principal biochemists. Students and staff had written 1,300 papers and 45 theses.

Gemmell Morgan was born in Dundee, the son of a well known physician, and educated at Dundee High School and Merchiston Castle School in Edinburgh. He went to the medical school in Dundee - then part of St Andrews University. In 1941, while he was 18 and a first-year medical student, he got a rare muscle cancer, a desmosarcoma the size of a fist, in his thigh: the standard treatment would have meant hindquarter amputation, so he chose the experimental radiotherapy, for which he had to commute to Edinburgh. The first two courses of treatment were followed by relapse, but the third was successful.

After house-officer jobs in Dundee hospitals, and short spells in paediatrics in Kent and in general practice near Dundee, he was drawn to the challenges of pathology - not to the study of biopsy tissue and dead bodies, but to the new subject of clinical biochemistry. His enthusiasm led to his appointment in charge of clinical chemistry at Dundee Royal Infirmary in 1952, and he immediately designed an intensive course for medical students. His department had two small rooms and an office when he arrived; he expanded it tenfold over his 14 years there, and installed state-of-the-art technology - a flame photometer, blood gas analyser and multichannel autoanalyser.

The peak of his research career was at Dundee. His interests were in vitamin D and calcium metabolism, and on the chemistry of atherosclerosis. He took 1956-57 out, researching calcium metabolism on a Fulbright research fellowship to Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore. This taught him that good clinical practice comes from fundamental knowledge arising from research. It also led him to the discovery of a post-war UK public health blunder. Following experiments on chickens, the Government fortified cod liver oil with vitamin D2, using doses suitable for poultry. Infants are more sensitive than fowl to the vitamin, and cases of infantile hypercalcaemia emerged. He rushed his findings to The Lancet in 1956, and the fortification scheme was quietly dropped.

The committee that appointed Morgan to the new chair of Pathological Biochemistry at Glasgow, meeting behind closed doors, decided that, though he was a firebrand, he was worth the risk.

Gemmell Morgan was Chairman, and then President, of the Association of Clinical Biochemists. His triumphant disdain for the other kind of pathologists - he called them "the dead meat boys" who got the last word, while biochemical pathologists diagnosed the living - meant he never held high office in the Royal College of Pathologists. He was always rocking the boat. Outspoken, vigorous, hugely popular, usually cheerful and often tactless, he was often told, "You can't say that, Gemmell" - to which he would reply, "Oh yes I can."

His recreations included reading, politics, travel, history and golf. In later life he had strong views on Palestine and the Iraq war, and was an active supporter of nuclear power, pointing out that it was a clean source of energy and had saved his life.

The tumour on his thigh never completely disappeared. In 1979, at a conference in Mexico, he developed a blockage in the main artery of his thigh, along with a ballooning of the aorta immediately above it - a consequence of the radiotherapy he underwent when young. He was flown back to Glasgow, where the Professor of Surgery, John Pollock, grafted Dacron into the aorta and told Morgan it would last 10-15 years. It lasted nearly 30 before it finally killed him.

Gemmell Morgan is survived by his wife Margaret and daughter Imogen, both doctors, and two grandchildren, one of whom is a medical student.

Caroline Richmond

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