Professor Robert Mahler

Editor and diabetes consultant


Robert Freiderich Mahler (Robert Frederick Mahler), physician and editor: born Vienna 31 October 1924; Reader in Experimental Medicine, Guy's Hospital Medical School 1959-66; Professor of Metabolic Medicine, Welsh National School of Medicine, Cardiff 1966-70, Professor of Medicine 1970-79; Consultant Physician, Northwick Park Hospital, Harrow 1979-90; Editor, Journal of the Royal College of Physicians 1987-94, Editor Emeritus 1994-2005; married 1951 Maureen Calvert (two sons); died London 29 May 2006.

Robert Mahler had two distinguished careers, as a physician and as a superb editor of the Royal College of Physicians' journal, and in his later life, took an active part in researching the treatment of parkinsonism (similar to Parkinson's disease) after benefiting from an innovative treatment.

Early in his career he defined the molecular basis of McArdle's syndrome, a disease of glycogen storage. As a diabetes consultant at Northwick Park Hospital he greatly improved the care of diabetic patients, and was an outstanding father figure and mentor to other physicians there. He showed that the great biochemist Hans Krebs was wrong, and that lactic acid can be turned to glycogen in muscle. He was an astonishingly productive person who rarely took holidays and worked from 4.30am until after midnight. His name is mentioned in Jean Medawar and David Pyke's book, Hitler's Gift (2000), as one of the many Jewish immigrants who have benefited UK society. He was gentle, wise and hugely popular.

Mahler was born in Vienna; his father was a general practitioner and surgeon. He went to a Montessori infant school, a dank, dark rigid primary school where rote learning was the order of the day, and a gymnasium housed in the Esterhazy Palace and run with a prison-like rigidity. At the age of nine, he was given a chemistry set and a copy of Paul De Kruif's book Microbe Hunters; from then onwards Robert Mahler wanted to be a medical scientist.

At 15 he came, as part of the Kindertransport, to Scotland, where he and his brother were taken in by the MacCrea family; Mr MacCrea was Edinburgh City Architect. Mahler's parents managed to escape Austria and disembarked in Calcutta, where they worked for the duration of the Second World War. He was reunited with them 15 years later, when his parents came to England and his father became a general practitioner in Ruislip.

Mahler was sent to Edinburgh Academy where he swiftly became top of the class in English, and he did his medical training at Edinburgh University. He qualified in 1947 with First Class honours in medicine, pathology and pharmacology, taking a degree in biochemistry en route. After two years as a junior doctor in Edinburgh and London he did two years' National Service in the RAF.

He spent five years, from 1951 to 1956, on the Medical Research Council staff at the Pneumoconiosis Research Unit in Wales, the Radiation Sickness Research Unit in London, and Manchester University's Department of Medicine. In 1956 he went to St Andrews University as Lecturer in Therapeutics, taking a year out to teach and research at Harvard.

From 1959 to 1966 he was Reader in Experimental Medicine at Guy's Hospital, taking a year out to be visiting professor at Indiana University. From 1966 until 1970 he was Professor of Metabolic Medicine at the Welsh National School of Medicine in Cardiff, and then Professor of Medicine until 1979. He spent the rest of his clinical career at Northwick Park Hospital in Harrow. During this time, he developed parkinsonism.

Throughout his senior career he was regarded by colleagues and juniors as a fount of wisdom and kindness, and he was noted for his punctilious use of English. He had been elected to fellowship of the Royal College of Physicians in 1968 and in 1987 he became editor of the college's journal, continuing until 1994. By then his parkinsonism had become severe, and for a year he needed a wheelchair to get from his car to his desk.

Some years ago, it was found that gastric ulcers are caused by a bacterium called Helicobacter and could be healed with a combination of three antibiotics; the Australian discoverers of this phenomenon earned the 2005 Nobel prize for medicine. Recently, it has been noted that parkinsonism improved greatly in patients having ulcer therapy. Mahler took the treatment with dramatic effect, and was able to walk again. He also took an active part in the research, assessing "blinded" videos of other patients before and after treatment, and his last two research papers were on Helicobacter and parkinsonism.

In his last years, he developed heart disease but declined surgery, saying he felt it was the best way to depart.

Caroline Richmond

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