Obituary: Kenneth Mellanby
Tuesday 11 January 1994
KENNETH MELLANBY was a talented all-round scientist and administrator who made significant contributions to knowledge and had a gift for providing conditions under which others seeking knowledge could gain it. His distinguished career had three outstanding peaks: as a research entomologist; as Principal of University College, Ibadan; and as Director of Monks Wood Experimental Station, near Huntingdon. The experiences of the first two enabled him to make the latter post his greatest single creative achievement.
Educated at Barnard Castle School, he went on to read Natural Sciences at King's College, Cambridge, before moving in 1930 to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, where he studied for a PhD on the susceptibility of various parasites of man to desiccation and overheating. This, and the subsequent work he did in Sheffield in 1936-41, as Sorby Research Fellow of the Royal Society, prepared him for the first 'peak'.
Early in the Second World War, he drew attention to the need to control scabies, which often kept sufferers in hospital for several weeks. He used pacifist volunteers to carry out experiments which showed that all stages of the disease-carrying mite Sarcoptes scabiei died quickly at room temperature, so that stored bedding was not the cause of infection as had been falsely assumed. He and the volunteers proved that infection only came from intimate contact and that it could be cured in an hour by a single whole-body treatment with benzyl benzoate. He calculated that this discovery alone freed the equivalent of two divisions of soldiers from hospital.
Mellanby told the story in Human Guinea-pigs (1945), which displayed for the first time his ability to communicate to non-scientists. A review at the time described it as 'popular science at its best'. He was appointed OBE in 1945 for the scabies work.
Important as these results were in themselves, the experience gained was to colour his approach to the management of research at Monks Wood 16 years later. As he wrote in the preface to the 1973 edition of Human Guinea-pigs: 'the most valuable results were not those I set out to obtain . . . had I been under the strict control of an unimaginative director or committee, the work would have stopped'.
In addition to scabies research his wartime experiences, as a Major in the RAMC, took him to look at health problems in Asia and Africa and this perhaps helped him to accept (in 1947) an invitation to become the first Principal of University College, Ibadan, in Nigeria. A grand title - but, when he arrived, there were no buildings, no staff and no students. His organisational and human qualities were demonstrated in that, by the time he left, in 1953, the college was a going and growing concern with an excellent and carefully chosen staff and several hundred students. He was promoted CBE in 1954 in recognition of this second 'peak'.
After Africa Mellanby returned to the London School of Hygiene for two years before being appointed Head of the Entomology Department at Rothamsted. These were not the most productive years of his life and it was fortunate that he could accept the inspired invitation to become the first Director of Monks Wood Experimental Station in 1961. As at Ibadan he inherited neither buildings nor staff but, within a few years, assisted by wise and experienced conservationists like Eric Duffey and Norman Moore, he built up the largest and most exciting laboratory of its kind in Britain, with a team of scientists and assistants dedicated to the urgency of the environmental issues they were tackling, most notably the long-term effects of insecticides of the chlorinated hydrocarbon group, including DDT.
The way Mellanby ran Monks Wood was influenced by his 'scabies' experience, and his imagination. He gave his team the freedom to explore areas beyond their immediate brief, he kept formal meetings to a minimum, an approach summarised by a notice in his room which read: 'It would be better if all the time passed on committees were spent fishing.' In contrast, informal meetings were de rigueur. Everyone was expected to take tea-breaks together, morning and afternoon, and fill up long tables as they arrived. In this way 'communication' between staff at all levels was ensured and ideas 'buzzed'. Evening events were equally important and guests were often surprised that the salmon had been cooked and the wines chosen by the Director.
Much of the research was embodied in scientific papers and books which flowed from Monks Wood in the Sixties and Seventies, not least from Mellanby himself. Pesticides and Pollution (1967) was a balanced approach - an antidote to the horror story of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring - for which he leant heavily on the research of his colleagues. But, despite the administrative load, he found time for research of his own, notably on moles, which were constantly erupting in the grass outside his office window. This led to two books: The Mole (1971) and, a children' story, in 1975, Talpa (the Latin generic name).
Mellanby's ability to see the world in its entirety and address broad issues was impressive. He was one of the first scientists to warn the public of the threats to the environment of the 'greenhouse effect' and, in the early Seventies was predicting, even whilst hedgerows were still disappearing from the Huntingdonshire landscape, that the problem of the future would be what to do with the land we would soon no longer need for growing food on - and was therefore encouraging research into habitat re-creation.
When Mellanby formally retired as Director in 1975, his methods were under attack. The Rothschild principles of government departments as 'customers' and research organisations as 'contractors' were already being implemented: he was totally opposed to them and made his views known. He undoubtedly upset the Establishment and this can be the only reason why his outstanding efforts at Monks Wood were not recognised with further honours.
Ken Mellanby would have been a splendid peer and the House of Lords would have benefited from that broad-based and balanced scientific acumen which all his many friends appreciated.
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