Professor Stephen Smith: Pharmacologist at St Thomas's

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Stephen Smith was an accomplished medical scientist, an inspirational teacher and a gifted amateur musician. He helped to develop the field of clinical pharmacology – the science of how drugs work in humans – and for many years until 1993 was Professor of Clinical Pharmacology at St Thomas's Hospital Medical School in London. He had tremendous vitality and warmth, and his innate curiosity was matched by a great sense of fun. All of which combined to make him an exceptional teacher: on occasions there was spontaneous applause from the students in response to his lectures.

Remarkably, he also developed strong ties with Burma where, over a 30-year period, he visited the medical schools there to advise and teach. He was one of the very few foreign-ers to have such access to this captivating yet notoriously brutalised and isolated country.

Smith was born in Hampstead, London, in 1929. His father was a German engineer and businessman. His mother's family were of German Jewish stock and had lived in Poland before emigrating to London. His parents' marriage was brief and he was brought up by his mother, first in Hampstead and then, when the Second World War broke out, on the Dorset coast variously in and around Christchurch.

Music was a vital feature of his mother's family, and at the age of 10 he was sent as a chorister to Christ Church Cathedral School in Oxford where the organist and choirmaster was Thomas Armstrong, later principal of the Royal Academy of Music. Smith subsequently won an exhibition to Westminster School, which was in wartime evacuation in Worcestershire when he joined in 1943.

On leaving school, he returned to Oxford, and Christ Church, on a scholarship to read medicine. He later happily admitted that he spent quite as much time playing music – the French horn and the violin – as studying during his time at university, performing in chamber and operatic orchestras in such venues as the Holywell Rooms and the Sheldonian. While at Oxford he also joined the Newbury String Players, under the direction of the composer Gerald Finzi.

In 1951 he became a clinical student at St Thomas's Hospital in London. As it transpired, it was there that he worked for most of the rest of his professional life. After qualifying as a doctor, he worked briefly as an anaesthetist before taking up a vacancy in St Thomas's then small department of pharmacology. He took enormous enjoyment in his academic role of teaching and researching, his work becoming increasingly focussed on the eye and how it responds to drugs. Some of his most important research involved novel methods of measuring pupil size dynamically, which broadened our understanding of pupillary physiology and pathology. His early research collaborator in this work, Shirley Taylor, later became his wife.

Stephen Smith was married twice and it was with his first wife, Marjory, that he had made his initial trip to Burma. In 1965 he obtained leave from St Thomas's to take up a two-year post as lecturer in pharmacology for the Burmese Institute of Medicine. He and Marjory decided to drive there. So they bought a Land Rover, packed their bags and set off, accompanied by an old friend. They reached Istanbul within a week and travelled on through Turkey to Iran. But in Teh-ran, news of the India-Pakistan war forced them to change plans: they drove to the Iranian port of Khorramsha and put the car on a ship to Burma; then Stephen and Marjory flew on to Rangoon.

Stephen Smith was enchanted by Burma. From his base in Rangoon he frequently took his Land Rover up to Mandalay to hold classes there. Even after experiences of driving in Asia Minor, the 400-mile journey was a challenge, not least the bridges and negotiating a way round the ubiquitous bullock carts. But he loved the sheer magic of the landscape, the villages and, as he later commented "the most beautiful animals and birds conceivable". At the end of his two-year assignment he and Marjory shipped the car to Calcutta (the Burmese authorities would not permit a border crossing by land) and drove back home, crossing Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey.

He returned to Burma a number of times, on assignments lasting from a week to four months. One of the most notable visits was in December 1974, a working trip that formed part of his honeymoon with Shirley. After a series of demonstrations that year Burma was under curfew but nothing daunted Smith spent Christmas night playing carols on the piano at the British Embassy Residence. On his last visit to Burma he was given a Burmese name, Aung Htet, by his colleagues and was enormously proud of this very high honour. He was deeply concerned by last summer's "Saffron Revolution" although by that stage he was becoming increasingly ill from malignant melanoma.

Although he had left St Thomas's in 1993 he never fully retired, taking on a part-time position as senior research fellow and honorary consultant at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in Queen Square, London. He continued working there until shortly before he was admitted to St Christopher's Hospice in Sydenham, London, where he died peacefully.

Harriet O'Brien

Stephen Edward Smith, pharmacologist: born London 9 April 1929; Professor of Clinical Pharmacology, St Thomas's Hospital Medical School 1980-93; married 1955 Marjory Murray (marriage dissolved 1974), 1974 Shirley Taylor (one son, one daughter); died London 4 December 2007.

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