Obituary: Hugh Davson

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The Independent Online
British physiology has, over the past century, produced some remarkable scientists, renowned for conducting imaginative, far-ranging research and producing scholarly, lucid texts. Hugh Davson was a physiologist in this tradition. His work on the cell membrane was a major contribution to an area that is now recognised as fundamental for much of modern physiology and pharmacology.

Additionally he was a pioneering investigator of the physiology of eye fluids and the cerebrospinal fluid (csf), his work having clinical relevance to conditions such as glaucoma, meningitis, hydrocephalus and techniques of corneal transportation. He was also, throughout most of his professional life, a prolific and elegant writer of textbooks and research monographs, the most recent of which, The Physiology of the Csf and Blood Brain Barriers with Malcolm Segal, was published at the beginning of the year.

Born in 1909, Davson was the fifth of eight children of a prosperous north London medical practitioner. Aged 17, after a undistinguished career at University College School, he was sent to work, as a clerk in a firm on the Baltic Exchange, his father having wrongly assumed that he had failed his matriculation. Davson stayed for two years before having, as he put it, the good fortune to be sacked. Thus he had the opportunity to resume his education, and, supported by his father, entered University College London to reach chemistry.

He graduated with First Class honours in 1931, as did his friend and later co-worker Jim Danielli. The national financial crisis of that year meant that jobs were scarce,and by default not intention, he remained at UCL, joining for a while the college's Communist cell, and doing research in chemistry under the supervision of C.K. Ingold. The arrangement was not a happy one. Financial difficulties - Davson was still largely supported by his father - were increased on his marriage to Marjorie Heath, later a distinguished society portrait painter, and the project Ingold had assigned was routine and tedious, with little scope for individual flair or innovation.

Davson was rescued by Professor (later Sir) Jack Drummond of the department of biochemistry at UCL, who provided a modest grant, laboratory space and an entirely free hand with research. Thus he began to investigate the chemistry of living matter, especially the permeability of the membrane of red blood cells.

Membranes, the barriers between the living cell and the outside world, were little understood, and Davson studied the mechanisms of selective permeability, how some substances could cross this barrier whilst others were prevented. Red blood cells were readily obtained from a local abattoir, and Davson, often with Danielli, studied how electrically charged particles, or ions, of different chemical elements were transported into and out of the red cell, across the membrane.

Continuing money problems, exacerbated by the arrival of a daughter, lead Davson to apply for a research post, funded by the Medical Research Council, to work with an ophthalmologist, Dr (later Sir) Stewart Duke- Elder, studying eye fluids and the causative factors of glaucoma. A Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship in 1936, to work in the United States, and a Beit Fellowship the following year allowed him to develop his membrane work more fully, although an application in 1939 for a Senior Beit Fellowship was rejected because, he was told, work on cell membranes was not relevant to physiology. He therefore accepted a post at Dalhousie University in Canada, crossing the border from the US on the day war was declared.

Before leaving Britain, Davson had written an MSc thesis, which became the basis of a classic research text, Davson and Danielli's Permeability of Natural Membranes, that finally appeared in 1942. By then Davson, just awarded a DSc, had returned to Britain across a U-boat-infested Atlantic to undertake war work. Whilst his wife and daughter stayed in A.A. Milne's empty house in Chelsea, Davson worked at Porton Down on the effects of nitrogen mustard on the eye, and then with the Army Operational Research Group at Roehampton. With his expertise in visual physiology he was assigned to a project on night-time viewing in which he learned to drive Sherman tanks, bulldozers and army lorries along the darkened lanes of Surrey, with the aid of infra-red light.

Deciding after the war not to return to Canada, Davson began working once more on eye fluids at UCL, and then at the Institute of Ophthalmology in London, which he helped to establish in 1947, Duke-Elder becoming Director, with Davson as his deputy. Personal and intellectual differences between the two men led Davson to return to UCL, to the Department of Physiology. In an extensive oral history interview for the Physiological Society, Davson described this period as an appalling crisis.

He had built up a team of keen young researchers at the institute, and feeling that it would be unfair to continue working on the eye fluids, in competition with those had until so recently been his colleagues, he started a new research programme on the cerebrospinal fluid that bathes the brain. He wrote his first book on the subject, he said, because he knew nothing about it and needed to learn.

Employed as a member of staff of the Medical Research Council from 1954, he remained at UCL until his retirement in 1975, after which he held several visiting professorships in Britain and the US, and worked and wrote on transport across biological barriers until his death.

Davson's literary contributions to modern physiology are enormous. Amongst others, The Physiology of the Eye appeared in 1949 (he was working on a new edition when he died); two years later, the first edition of Textbook of General Physiology appeared. There were several more: he typed all the early drafts himself and prepared the indices from a massive array of cards.

In 1985 he was elected an Honorary Member of the Physiological Society, of which had been a member for 45 years, but, probably because of his determined individuality and self-confessed lack of tact, received few other accolades from Britain. In contrast he was well recognised in the US, being awarded numerous prizes and honours, including the Fogarty Scholarship in 1975, and in 1993 the American Physiological Society inaugurated an eponymous lecture in his honour, a distinction that gave him particular pleasure.

For his services in promoting Yugoslav-British academic exchanges, he was elected to the Serbian Academy of Sciences, only the third Englishman, after William Gladstone and the sculptor Henry Moore, to be so honoured.

Hugh Davson, physiologist: born London 25 November 1909; married 1931 Marjorie Heath (died 1994; one daughter); died Georgeham, Devon 2 July 1996.