Obituary: Professor Peter Alexander
Wednesday 22 December 1993
PETER ALEXANDER was a leading figure in British cancer research in the last three decades and one of the most colourful and controversial scientists of his generation.
For many years he held the Chair of Radiobiology at London University, tenable at the Institute of Cancer Research, and since 1982 had been a visiting Professor in the Faculty of Medicine at Southampton University. In early 1989 he had a serious accident while skiing in Verbier, Switzerland, which left him severely paralysed, confined to a wheelchair with only partial use of his arms and hands. Characteristically, he continued to visit his laboratory and contribute to the research, as well as editing the Journal of Biochemical Pharmacology, which he helped to found in 1958.
Physically attractive, Alexander had an easy charm which was European rather than purely English. Although of German origin, he was educated in England at the University College School in Hampstead. He took his first degree, in Chemistry, at Imperial College and completed his PhD in Physical Chemistry there in 1943. He wished to join the RAF but was directed into miscellaneous war-related investigations under Professors HVA Briscoe and GI Finch. These ranged apparently from the investigation of irregular periods in WAAF radar operators to a hunt, as an acting lieutenant-colonel, through the ruins of the IG Farben factories in Germany for the plans of fiendish discoveries and chemical weapons. None was found.
After the war Alexander undertook research in the textile industry which attracted the attention of Alexander Haddow, the director of the Chester Beatty Research Institute (Institute of Cancer Research), who recruited Alexander in 1950.
Thus began a singular career. Alexander usually signalled his entry into a particular field of scientific endeavour by writing a standard work on the subject (eg, Wool - its chemistry and physics). His leaning towards physics, the climate of the times, and the imperatives of the cancer problem turned his interest to atomic radiation. His principal work Fundamentals of Radiobiology (with the Belgian Professor Z. M. Bacq) was soon in print to be followed by a popular Pelican treatment, Atomic Radiation and Life. Such works brought wide recognition: he was awarded a DSc in 1960 and became Reader (1965) and then Professor (1967) of Radiobiology at London University. By this time the radiotherapy and chemotherapy of cancer had become well established and Alexander was on the lookout, as always, for something emergent, exciting, novel and not over-subscribed. He chose tumour immunology. A new unit was built for him in the grounds of the Royal Marsden Hospital's Surrey Branch at Sutton. It was marked with an 'X' on the architect's plan and faute de mieux it became known as 'Block X' when it opened in 1967. Though quite small, it housed projects that ranged from basic radiobiology to immuno-physiology with tumour immunology sandwiched somewhere in between.
The next 15 years were in some ways the most fruitful of Alexander's career. Research papers, reviews and book chapters flowed from his pen. Their contents were disseminated also by his frequent attendance at meetings all over the world where he was always in high demand as a chairman or invited speaker. Alexander contrived at the same time to involve himself at a local level as a leader and teacher.
From the start, Block X had strong clinical links in the person of Dr Gordon Hamilton-Fairley, who introduced his up-and-coming young clinical oncologists to the doings of the research laboratories. Alexander developed a special affinity for such people and a steady stream of young clinicians and scientists came to him for advice.
This continued even after Hamilton-Fairley's death in the explosion of an IRA bomb in London and over the years it contributed directly or indirectly to a rich harvest of research in oncology units throughout the land. Inevitably, there were setbacks; science in general had been well regarded and funded throughout the Fifties and Sixties and didn't do too badly in the Seventies but in the Eighties the climate changed dramatically. Funds for Alexander's catholic, broad-front strategies became hard to get, even if one was prepared to accept the attached strings. 'Focused' research, as narrow as an accountant's mind, was the order of the day. Slow death by a thousand cuts did not appeal so he removed himself to a smaller, better found laboratory at Southampton.
Tumour immunology in its naive and pristine form never fulfilled the expectations of its uncritical advocates and was overtaken by more sophisticated approaches to the understanding of the tumour-host relationship. This was welcomed by Alexander who by inclinations and training was more at home with molecules than whole animals. Happily the former are susceptible to computer simulation which proved to be a crucial consideration after Alexander was struck down by injury.
Peter Alexander's talents were those of a publicist, a communicator, a teacher and a leader rather than those of a bench worker. He was a strategist rather than a tactician. He was basically a romantic and science for him was a personal crusade in which a struggle against daunting odds was a stimulus and not an obstacle. He could only function properly if he felt himself to be at the centre of the affairs that interested him. Then ideas erupted from him in rapid succession and ranged from the penetratingly astute to the hare-brained and often exceeded the resources provided for their completion by several orders of magnitude.
His range of knowledge was formidable and he contributed greatly to many technical committees but he was not really a skilful politician. In those committees which dealt with managerial policy of great pith and moment, where sober men walk in the valley of the shadow of precedent, his scientific charisma was distrusted and he was not listened to sufficiently.
From such troubles he protected himself by his involvement in his home and his family. His wife June was devoted to rural life and horses so domestic life was organised accordingly. Being entertained by the Alexanders was always a treat, usually uproarious and well serviced with splendid food and drink, served amidst a profusion of back numbers of Nature, galley proofs, temporarily discarded riding boots, dogs, cats and items of saddlery, while outside the windows sheep, and even llamas, browsed.
In his younger days Peter Alexander had been something of an Alpinist but with the acquisition of family responsibilities such activities were transmuted into frequent skiing holidays in which he revelled. He was a powerful rather than a stylish skier who would go anywhere on the mountains where skis could run, and perform from dawn till dusk without apparent fatigue. One day, the combination of aggressive opportunism and bad snow conditions led to the final fall.
In the few years left to him Peter's resolution and June's devotion were tested to the full. Neither failed. Peter was a clever and hardworking man who strove to provide mechanistic explanations of natural phenomena but his memorial will be written in the hearts of men and women as much as in the annals of science.
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