Obituary: Professor Henry McIlwain

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Henry McIlwain, biochemist, born Newcastle upon Tyne 20 December 1912, Leverhulme Research Fellow / Member of Scientific Staff MRC in Department of Bacterial Chemistry (Middlesex Hospital) and Unit for Research in Cell Metabolism (Sheffield University) 1937-47, Lecturer in Biochemistry Sheffield University 1944-47, Honorary Biochemist Bethlem Royal Hospital and Maudsley Hospital 1948-80, Senior Lecturer then Reader in Biochemistry Institute of Psychiatry London University 1948-54, Professor of Biochemistry 1954-80, Visiting Professor St Thomas's Hospital Medical School 1980-87, married 1941 Valerie Durston (died 1977; two daughters), 1979 Marjorie Crennell, died 14 September 1992.

THE NEWS OF the death of Henry McIlwain has rung a sad note around the international world of neurochemistry. Not only was he highly respected by his peers and students as a pioneer biochemist of the nervous system, he also trained many of the world's leading neurochemists in his London laboratory. He had a cardinal influence on the development of neurochemistry from the early 1950s through the momentum he gave to research, through his postgraduate and postdoctoral training programmes and his several textbooks. In addition, was his active campaigning with various eminent neurochemists overseas to establish the Journal of Neurochemistry (1956) and the International Society of Neurochemistry (1967). All these contributions clearly qualify him as a founding father of the modern discipline.

He was born in 1912 in Newcastle upon Tyne. His early research career, from 1936 to 1947, followed a very different theme to neurochemistry and concentrated on nutritional factors controlling the growth of bacteria and subsequently synthetic bacterial antimetabolites as chemotherapeutic agents for treating bacterial infection. This work was carried out with considerable success in an MRC Unit led by Sir Paul Fildes at the Middlesex Hospital, London (1937-40) and later (1940-46) in Hans Krebs's MRC Unit in Sheffield University. Antibacterial agents had been one aspect of his Ph D research topic in organic chemistry in Newcastle upon Tyne under Professor GR Clemo, and he had briefly pursued this theme with Professor Robert Robinson in Oxford (1936) before the move to London. Here, in a small research group led by DD Woods and Paul Fildes, he helped to define the mode of action of the then recently discovered sulphonamide drugs.

When McIlwain moved to Sheffield University during the war (1940-46) in order to work in the MRC Unit directed by Hans Krebs he continued the theme of seeking antimetabolites as chemotherapeutic agents, and, in collaboration with Glaxo Laboratories, he discovered (with Frank Hawking) that pantoyl-taurine, a synthetic analogue of the then newly discovered pantothenic acid (a component of the vitamin B2 complex) gave very effective protection against bacterial infection in animals.

McIlwain was very pleased to be appointed first as Principal Biochemist to the London County Council Mental Health Services, and then within months, as Senior Lecturer and later as Reader in Biochemistry in the soon-to-be- created Institute of Psychiatry of the Postgraduate Medical Federation (1948), a school of London University. Sir Aubrey Lewis, professor of psychiatry and head of the new institute, foresaw a role for biochemistry in psychiatry, and at the end of 1947 McIlwain took up his task of organising a department dealing with biochemical research on the nervous system and the teaching of neurochemistry (eventually with a teaching staff of four) to the postgraduate medical students studying for the Diploma in Psychological Medicine.

In taking up this post, he had been driven by the intriguing possibilities of describing aspects of physiological and psychological function of the brain in biochemical terms. To quote him: 'I realised how delightful it could be for me to try, from the biochemical inside, the themes of William James, Hume, Locke and Freud which had been some of my leisure reading.' Neurochemical research was in its infancy in the 1950s, but McIlwain gave it great impetus at that time with his demonstration that both electrical and chemical stimulation applied to isolated, well-maintained brain- tissue preparations via ingeniously designed electrode vessels, would dramatically augment their basic metabolic activities thereby mimicking responses in electrically active intact brain-tissue. Since such responses could be inhibited by drugs used to treat psychiatric illness, the potentiality of this approach both for studying biochemical brain mechanisms and for understanding and developing neuroactive and psychoactive drugs was evident.

He went on in the mid-1960s, with Chorasburo Yamamoto and Chris Richards, to show that nerve-impulse traffic in neural circuitry in special regional brain slices, maintained in isolation from the brain, could be followed with glass microelectrodes. Neuroactive drugs could modulate these phenomena.

This pioneering in vitro approach, though not well received by neurophysiologists at that time, became a very commonly used technique by the 1980s. McIlwain's London laboratory became famous internationally through his research publications, his lectures given abroad, and through the considerable success of his early textbooks Biochemistry and the Central Nervous System (1955) and Chemotherapy and the Central Nervous System (1957). The Maudsley laboratory became a Mecca both for internationally established neurochemists passing through London, and for many young post-doctoral workers from many nations who were eager to train in this new biochemical discipline. It was an important influence which resulted in increased neurochemical research activity across the world.

McIlwain and his co-workers developed a range of specialised equipment for preparing, handling and stimulating brain slices which was sold world-wide under contract to a manufacturing company. This includes the McIlwain Tissue Chopper, still used by biochemists in many disciplines.

Many of the dynamic aspects of neurochemistry studied today (such as the turnover of organophosphorus compounds) were first studied in his laboratory using these techniques with PJ Heald and R. Rodnight.

Another innovation was the establishment of the first laboratory-based course in neurochemistry (1961) which in 1967 developed into a one-year MSc degree course jointly taught with the Institutes of Neurology and Ophthalmology. Several similar courses elsewhere have followed. This gave birth to the widely used handbook Practical Neurochemistry (1962, with Richard Rodnight) and to its later versions.

Henry McIlwain was given a personal professorship in 1954. Many of his scientific colleagues both in the UK and abroad have long believed that his contributions to the field of neurochemistry have been inadequately recognised by the scientific establishment in Britain, and that he should have received more overt marks of distinction and honour.

He was a deeply serious and well-read man with strong interests in intellectual ideas of many kinds from philosophy and psychology to art, theatre and literature. He always demanded high standards in thinking, writing and laboratory work from his staff and students, which could make him appear somewhat intolerant. Although normally of a quiet and rather withdrawn dispoition, on more frivolous social occasions he could display an amusing, outgoing personality and melt into a most genial companion.

(Photograph omitted)