Sir Ian Mcgregor

Malariologist who led British research in tropical medicine at the MRC Laboratories in the Gambia


Ian Alexander McGregor, malariologist: born Cambuslang, Lanarkshire 26 August 1922; Member, Scientific Staff, Human Nutrition Research Unit, MRC 1949-53; Director, MRC Laboratories, The Gambia 1954-74, 1978-80; OBE 1959, CBE 1968; Head of the Laboratory of Tropical Community Studies, National Institute for Medical Research, Mill Hill 1974-77; FRS 1981; Member of External Staff, MRC 1981-84; Visiting Professor, Department of Tropical Medicine, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine 1981-94; Kt 1982; Chairman, WHO Expert Committee on Malaria 1985-89; married 1954 Joan Small (one son, one daughter); died Homington, Wiltshire 1 February 2007.

Ian McGregor was one of the last remaining scientists to have complete mastery of malariology, past and present. With the failure of the World Health Organisation's post-war Global Malaria Eradication policy, several hundred million people had been newly exposed to the disease. Millions were dying from it annually. New immunological insights were required and McGregor made a hugely successful contribution - maintaining British tropical medicine at the forefront of global efforts to understand the pathogenesis of malaria and to improve its control.

Born in Lanarkshire in 1922, he was educated at Rutherglen Academy and St Mungo College and, after a distinguished undergraduate career, qualified in Medicine from Glasgow in 1945. After military service, he joined the scientific staff of the Human Nutrition Research Unit at the British Medical Research Council (MRC) in the Gambia in 1949.

In 1948, the MRC had set up a Field Research Station at Fajara, Gambia, to study the physiology, metabolism and health of rural Africans, mainly from the standpoint of nutrition. Initial studies had indicated that parasitological and nutritional factors were closely interrelated in determining the ill-health of Gambians and it was decided, in order to provide an accurate assessment of these, that a baseline survey was required. This was undertaken in the remote rural village of Keneba in West Kiang district of what was then the Gambian Protectorate.

The responsibility for this work was McGregor's; he was sent inland by Professor B.S. Platt of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine with the instructions, "Come back when you have something interesting to tell me." The survey results were recorded in McGregor's first scientific paper, in 1952, "A Health, Nutrition and Parasitological Survey in a Rural Village (Keneba) in West Kiang, Gambia", published in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. The research was exacting and completed in a meticulous manner under difficult field conditions, and its themes - malaria, malnutrition and parasitism - would continue to engage his time, intellectual efforts and research for the next 45 years and establish him as a leading British scientist in tropical medicine.

The second half of the 20th century was the period when epidemiology and immunological methods were developed to characterise the effects of malaria on the host, and the host on malaria, and the factors described which govern disease patterns. Such work could only be undertaken in a well-organised and equipped tropical field station.

McGregor set himself the task of leading this effort when he accepted the appointment of Director of the MRC Laboratories in the Gambia in 1954, an appointment he retained until 1980. This included a four-year period, 1974-77, as Head of the Laboratory of Tropical Community Studies at the National Institute of Medical Research, Mill Hill.

Through prolonged epidemiological and clinical studies in the wilds of West Africa, McGregor, in collaboration with Herbert Gilles, demonstrated that, as the gamma-globulin antibody content of the blood of native children rose, immunity began to develop and malaria parasites in blood decreased. Administration of an anti-malarial drug from birth prevented this rise and reduced the customary high levels of these antibodies found in adults to the lower levels found in children.

In collaboration with Sydney Cohen, it was shown that transfer of a gamma-globulin fraction from adults into children suffering from malaria eradicated the blood of parasites and cleared the disease, proving that antibodies could protect from malaria. These findings decisively changed the whole emphasis of research on immunity to malaria and established the basis for work towards developing a malaria vaccine.

McGregor pursued this lifelong interest in acquired malaria immunity and the mechanisms responsible for it, and subsequently extended these studies to malaria in pregnancy and its consequences for the infant. In 1983, when he and Cohen assessed my PhD on malaria in pregnancy by oral examination, I experienced first-hand the extent of his knowledge on this subject. In subsequent years we had many opportunities for further discussion and any differences of interpretation were always tempered with a warm handshake.

In the Gambia, time off from this demanding work was spent with ornithology and plenty of tennis. Gilles remembered that Ian McGregor always played at the net, ushering instructions to Joan, his wife, who was the rear baseline defence. Joan did most of the running, with Ian firm at the net, scoring the winners with triumphant exclamations. Joan's support was integral not only to winning on the tennis court, but to many aspects of his scientific work, including field logistics, secretarial work, administration, cataloguing and facilitating everything his work required. There could be no better example of successful teamwork.

McGregor established the scientific reputation of the UK's MRC Laboratories in the Gambia as one of the world's premier scientific institutions for academic tropical research. His reputation grew with this success and it helped create an environment in this tiny West African country where investigators sought collaboration. He continuously maintained strong collaborations with UK researchers including W.Z. Billewicz, A.M. Thomson and R.M. Wilson, who are co-authors on many of his almost 200 scientific publications.

His predecessor as Director of the Field Research Station, B.S. Platt, had been a nutritionist and throughout his career McGregor fostered work on nutritional science. He created the demographic database for the village community of Keneba, now a famous name in tropical medicine, rather as Chelsea is for flowers. MRC Keneba still thrives as a centre for nutritional research today and in the intervening years the citizens of these villages - who became so well loved by Ian and Joan McGregor - have made huge contributions to medical research.

McGregor's approach allowed detailed longitudinal anthropometric studies from birth to maturity of whole communities and has provided a unique understanding of growth patterns of populations in disease endemic areas. This surveillance over 60 years has recently facilitated an analysis published (as "Season of Birth Predicts Mortality in Rural Gambia", 1997) in the scientific journal Nature by Professor Andrew Prentice and his colleagues, linking McGregor's early demographic data on births to adult mortality risk. This has provided unique biological insights into the foetal origins of adult disease.

Ian McGregor's vision of tropical medicine was broad and can be exemplified by his view on how lymphatic filariasis would be controlled. Professor David Molyneux, who co-ordinates the Global Control Programme for this disease, has commented that McGregor recommended mass drug administration as early as 1956, which 50 years later the Global Programme is now translating from vision to reality.

Despite McGregor's stature in his field, it is remarkable that he had never had to apply competitively for research funding, as he had continued reliance on MRC funding - a situation most researchers today would greatly envy, but which his work fully justified.

From 1961 onwards for a period of 40 years McGregor acted as chairman and consultant to several international World Health Organisation expert committees on malaria, for which he was awarded the Darling Foundation Medal in 1974. Professor Mike Service recalls, on a Usaid (United States Agency for International Development) mission to Kenya, India, Papua New Guinea and Australia in 1992 to evaluate malaria research, the lucidity with which McGregor could question research proposals, through his understanding of all aspects of malaria, whether medical, parasitological, or entomological; and, beyond this, his historical concept of malaria.

Some junior members of staff they met were initially in awe of a knight and a Fellow of the Royal Society, but, being a modest man and genuinely interested in what most junior scientists had to say about their research, he soon put people at ease.

Ian McGregor relocated to the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine as a Professorial Fellow after he and Joan finally returned from the Gambia in 1980. His time at the school was a period of change and he was a constant support to senior management, organising many preparations for the school's centenary activities in 1998. His interest in historical research led to Wellcome Trust support for an excellent publication on the school's contribution to tropical medicine by Helen Power (Tropical Medicine in the Twentieth Century: a history of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine 1898-1990, 1999).

During this time he published, with Walter Wernsdorfer, his magnum opus, Malaria: principles and practice of malariology (1988), which remains the essential reference on this subject. This two-volume epic of scholarship, with meticulous referencing, benefited from the school's homely environment, which both Ian and Joan McGregor graced with humour and friendship, particularly to younger colleagues.

In the school he used two offices, kept well stocked with all sorts of papers in metal boxes which had come from the Gambia. He kept several large freezers full with sera meticulously cross-referenced to previous research surveys, which proved a valuable historic resource. His original punch-card files have been computerised, allowing an analysis in 2006 of how maternal blood groups affect malaria, establishing a basis for new research.

The McGregors' hospitality at their rural retreat in Cheshire provided a frequent gathering place for friends and colleagues. Their affection for the North-West was reflected when, on moving to Salisbury after Ian McGregor's retirement from the school in 1994, their new home was named "Greenlooms" after the hamlet near Chester where they had created a splendid rural garden. Their new home brought them closer to their two children, Lesley and Alistair.

David Molyneux recalls McGregor's faithful and dedicated Scots rendition, on a Burns Night at the Liverpool Medical Institution, of his "Address to a Haggis" which must rank, probably after years of Gambia Caledonia Club experience, as near to the original as could be achieved. He is remembered by staff with affection - and for his funny hats which kept his ears warm; he did not worry about his appearance.

Ian McGregor attended the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine's Centenary Dinner in 1998, but subsequently refrained from participating in scientific work, becoming active in his local church community.

Bernard Brabin

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