Obituary: Professor Sir Alastair Currie
Wednesday 19 January 1994
ALASTAIR CURRIE was one of the foremost pathologists of his generation, a leader in the wide field of the biology and pathology of cancer and an outstanding teacher. He was a remarkable man who combined intellect, charm, friendliness and generosity and was always ready to help others, no matter what their status or calling.
He was born on the island of Islay in the Inner Hebrides in 1921 and, like many islanders, received his secondary-school education in Glasgow. He went on to Glasgow University to take his medical degree and thence to a senior lectureship in the Department of Pathology. It was during this time that he met his wife-to-be, Jeanne Clark, who also took a degree in medicine at the university, and they were married in 1949. He often talked lovingly of the time that he spent at Glasgow and maintained strong links with the university for the rest of his life.
In 1959 Currie headed for the 'smoke' of London to take up an appointment as Head of the Division of Pathology at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund and when, in 1962, he was invited to take up the Regius Chair of Pathology at Aberdeen University, he and his family were delighted to return to Scotland. At Aberdeen his skills as an organiser and administrator, and not least as a teacher, flowered and he built up a very strong department. In his work there, and later at Edinburgh, he was responsible for training a generation of pathologists, many of whom went on to head departments in universities both in Britain and overseas. The 10 years in Aberdeen were happy and fulfilling - the Curries' house was always welcoming and Alastair and Jeanne were towers of strength to younger colleagues and particularly to those, like myself, who were new arrivals in Scotland.
During this time his research activities flourished and an important contribution, and one for which he will always be remembered, was the work on programmed cell death which he undertook with John Kerr, an Australian visitor, and Andrew Wyllie; this was published in 1972. In searching for a name to describe this cellular self-destruct process, Currie turned to a colleague, the Professor of Greek at the university, who suggested apoptosis - the falling of leaves off a tree. Apoptosis has assumed immense importance in recent years, particularly in the context of its failure in many cancers, and following the characterisation of many of the genes involved in the process. The Royal Societies of Edinburgh and of London are each holding a symposium on the topic later this year and Currie was looking forward to participating.
In 1972, Currie moved from Aberdeen to the Chair of Pathology at Edinburgh University and I was especially happy, as I had made a similar move some three years earlier. At Edinburgh he plunged himself into building up the department, was a member of the University Court and was also much involved with various national and international advisory boards and scientific committees. In recognition of his work he was knighted in 1979. Following service as a Council and Board member of the Medical Research Council, over the period from 1973 to 1992 he increasingly devoted himself to the affairs of the Cancer Research Campaign. He threw himself into his voluntary Campaign work and he was a superb and inspired chairman. He was also much in demand as an after-dinner speaker and he had, until the end, a phenomenal memory for names and faces. He was proud of his roots and it was a particular pleasure to him when he was appointed in 1987 as a trustee of the Islay Museums - an honour which he cherished as much as the honorary degrees from the Universities of Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Birmingham and his Alma Mater, Glasgow.
Following his retirement from the Edinburgh chair in 1986, Currie played an ever-increasing role at the Royal Society of Edinburgh and was elected President in 1991; the first medical man to be awarded that honour this century. He had an enormous influence on the affairs of the society and was responsible for a number of innovations before stepping down in October 1993. During this period he was also largely responsible for setting up, in 1989, and guiding the Caledonian Research Foundation, a body aiming to foster the development of biomedical sciences in Scotland through the award of scholarships, fellowships and, with the Royal Society, to promote symposia and prize lectureships.
Currie's influence in shaping the direction of medical, and particularly cancer, research was not confined to Britain. He served on many advisory boards in foreign countries and I am reminded of the time, in the late 1970s, when he met in Edinburgh with Peter Lochead, then Premier of Alberta, who sought his advice in setting up what has turned out to be the very successful Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research. He maintained a special interest, and had many friends, in the biomedical sphere in Canada and served on the foundation's Scientific Advisory Council from 1982 until 1988.
Throughout his life Alastair Currie was keenly interested in people and all things Scottish and was always a source of help and inspiration to all who met him; for him the aim was always to do a 'proper job', something which he unfailingly accomplished.
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