Professor Wilfrid Butt

Pioneering endocrinologist
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The Independent Online

Wilfrid Roger Butt, biochemist: born Southampton 2 May 1922; experimental officer, Chemical Inspection Department, Royal Arsenal, Woolwich 1939-46; Research Assistant, Endocrine Unit, London Hospital 1946-49; Biochemist, Department of Clinical Endocrinology, Birmingham and Midlands Hospital for Women 1949-64, Consultant 1964-70, Director 1970-87; Special Professor in Clinical Endocrinology, Nottingham University 1968-87; Honorary Professor of Endocrinology, Birmingham University 1976-87; married 1951 Patricia Sharp (one son, one daughter); died Warwick 1 May 2006.

Next to the Birmingham and Midlands Hospital for Women, in Showell Green Lane, Moseley, was an old building which housed the endocrinological laboratory run by Dr Carl Crooke as the chief and Wilfrid Butt as his assistant. The building was originally made available to them in 1948 by the intervention of Dame Hilda Lloyd-Rose, then President of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, who had had the great foresight to invite Crooke and Butt to come up from the London Hospital to Birmingham and bring their expertise with them.

They very quickly settled down and went on to produce a laboratory which was second to none. Together, with their experience in adrenal and hormonal assays of the human female, such as the follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), luteinising hormone and Prolactin, they made this laboratory a formidable force in the assays and treatment of reproduction.

As Butt once recalled, Crooke "realised that to make real progress he needed a team of biologists, biochemists and statisticians". In their work, Crooke and Butt were assisted by superb technicians such as Ray Morris and Walter Robinson, as well as given tremendous help by the principal biochemist Se Lynch. They were therefore able to measure hormones regulating the menstrual and ovulatory cycles, together with pregnancy.

I first met Butt in 1959 when I was appointed as a first Assistant Consultant to the Professorial Unit of Obstetrics and Gynaecology in Birmingham. This unit was run by Professor Hugh McLaren at the Women's Hospital, as well as at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Edgbaston. I was amazed that none of my surgical and obstetrical colleagues paid any attention or made use of the facilities offered by the endocrinological department. Nor did they have knowledge of the work by Butt on the purification and synthesis of FSH.

In combination with Butt, we set up a clinical trial of patients at the Women's Hospital who were complaining of primary and secondary amenorrhia, Stein Levanthal syndrome and other aspects of infertility. Arrangements were therefore made with Cambridge to send up pituitaries from cadavers so that Butt could extract the various hormones for use in clinical trials. These would be injected into specific patients in varying dosages, and it was hoped in this way to avoid super-ovulation and multiple pregnancies, leading to hyperstimulation syndrome with all its dangers. I am pleased to say that this was achieved.

In 1964 Butt was made a consultant and eventually, in 1970, succeeded Crooke as director of the department. He was also appointed Special Professor in Clinical Endocrinology to Nottingham University in 1968, and Professor of Endocrinology to Birmingham University in 1976. He became a consultant to the World Health Organisation, which he continued long after his retirement in 1987.

He was awarded the Wellcome Prize for Clinical Chemistry in 1978, and received the Silver Plate from the Society of Endocrinology in 1989. In 1992 he undertook the Hugh McLaren Memorial Lecture, as a non-clinician, and was presented with an engraved crystal goblet, to great applause.

Born in Southampton in 1922 and educated at Sir Joseph Williamson's Mathematical School, in Rochester, Kent, Butt served throughout the Second World War in the Chemical Inspection Department at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich. At the same time he undertook a degree at London University, graduating in 1944. He joined the London Hospital as a research assistant in the Endocrine Unit under Carl Crooke. After the move to Birmingham, in 1951 he was married to Patricia Sharp, then in 1954 acquired a PhD and in 1968 a DSc.

Butt was a kindly man and most generous to junior staff at the Women's Hospital. The majority of them were encouraged to undertake scientific theses under his supervision, using patient material at the Women's Hospital. Every Saturday morning after the routine ward round, Butt and a senior technician would arrive on Ward Two. Here the gynaecological team responsible for the clinical trial, plus one of the junior doctors working on their MD thesis, would attend. Full discussions would occur as regards the thesis and no punches were pulled. These sessions became well known and gynaecologists from other hospitals would attend, as well as doctors interested in reproductive endocrinology.

On Wilfrid Butt's retirement, he and Pat retired to Stratford-on-Avon and enjoyed a life of theatre, music and the arts. He started painting again, at which he was most proficient. He was a brilliant pianist and organist, and had played regularly at the chapel in the Women's Hospital until he developed gouty tophi at his fingertips which made organ-playing impossible.

Ted Logan-Edwards

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