Obituary: Sir Barry Cross
Thursday 12 May 1994
BARRY CROSS was a physiologist of the old school, who distinguished himself in research, teaching and scientific administration through the support of academic excellence and academic freedom. He rarely spoke of his early training, but one sensed that he was greatly influenced by the leading figures with whom he later worked.
Cross qualified in 1947 at the Royal Veterinary College, where his interests in lactation and reproduction were kindled by the teachings of SJ Folley and EC Amoroso. He moved to Cambridge, to St John's College and the Physiological Laboratory. At that time the laboratory sported a galaxy of internationally recognised physiologists, including GW Harris, one of the founding figures of neuroendocrinology, to whom Cross turned for the direction of his doctoral studies on the neural control of lactation. From these studies emerged the principles of the suckling-induced ejection of milk from the mammary gland, and an understanding of the mechanisms governing the inhibition of the reflex during stress.
Convinced of the importance of attempting to relate the electrical activity of the brain to the secretions of the pituitary gland, Cross moved to Los Angeles for a year (1957-58), with the support of the Rockefeller Foundation, to learn from JD Green the art of recording the electrical impulses of single neurones, deep in the hypothalamic parts of the brain. This was foreign territory to the neurophysiologists of the time. Twenty-one years later, however, the concept of the 'endocrine neurone' had come of age. Cross's studies and those of his graduate students had established the electrical determinants of oxytocin (and vasopressin) secretion down to the level of the single neurone. Neurophysiologists had to bite the bullet and accept that neurones secreted peptide hormones or peptide neuromodulators. Endocrinologists, fledged on the measurement of hormone assays in daily blood samples, had to come to terms with action potentials measured in milliseconds and the secretion of hormones from the pituitary gland in pulses measured in seconds or minutes. GW Harris watched with interest, never convinced that electrical recording could supplant electrical stimulation as an analytical tool. His untimely death in 1971 prevented him from observing the definitive electrophysiological recordings that were to be obtained, a few months later, elegantly to support the neuroendocrine doctrine that he had advanced.
From Cambridge in 1967, and the Department of Veterinary Anatomy where he was then working, Cross moved to the chair of Anatomy at Bristol University, assuming responsibility for both veterinary and human studies. He knew the dissection of the cow, but, one would have to say, somewhat less about the human body. Breaking all established practices, and much to the barely hidden concern of his scientific and clinical colleagues elsewhere in the faculty, he filled his department with electrophysiological and biochemical equipment, and appointed non-medics with qualifications in biochemistry and agriculture, with 2:2 degrees, to teach medical students the functional anatomy of the human body. His requirement was enthusiasm, scientific curiosity and application, not paper qualifications. Competition and determination to succeed were the order of day.
Within two to three years his department was pre-eminent in the university; students flocked to intercalate in Anatomy and research income escalated to exceed that of all but one or two departments elsewhere. We, as young upstarts, were given freedom but no space; Cross did not believe in the building of empires behind walls, staffed with graduate students as slave labour. He directed only five graduate students in his whole career. I hesitate to say supervised because his philosophy was to give his graduate students freedom to sink or swim; to swim, the thesis had to be on the desk well within three years. His revolutionary lead in the teaching of Anatomy is still evident; his influence, as a mentor, still lingers on.
The Agricultural Research Council brought that era to a close in 1974, when they enticed him to the Directorship of the Babraham Institute, as it is now known, back in his beloved Cambridge. There, he faced the politics and policies of a changing world, head on. Cross defended the importance of fundamental research against those who sought commercial application at every step; he defended quality of output against those who sought to place value in quantity. To a large extent he protected the Babraham Institute from the ravages sought elsewhere in the field of agricultural research, and through the support of fundamental studies at a molecular and cellular level laid the foundation for the current re-birth of the institute under the new Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. He embraced other issues of great difficulty, including the future of the Zoological Society of London and the Strangeways Laboratories in Cambridge.
Cross loved the collegiate system of Cambridge, revelled in its scholarship, and contributed with enthusiasm to undergraduate teaching throughout his career. He was appointed a Fellow of Corpus Christi College in 1962, and served the college as Warden of Leckhampton House, the college's graduate community, and as President. He gained much personal enjoyment from these college activities, and attributed much of his energy to his life among young people.
His quiet and autocratic style, and gift to interpose the key question, did not endear him to everyone in science or public life. Beneath the surface, but perhaps known only to those who really knew him well, was a kind and generous man.
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