VOLUME 2 - ISSUE 2 - J P QUILLIAM (1915-2003)

Peter Quilliam (aka ‘Q’) joined the British Pharmacological Society in 1950 and was elected Honorary
Member in 1998. He served the Society as Press Editor for the Journal (1957-60) and as the
Society’s General Secretary from 1968 to 1971.

The Quilliams are of Manx descent: Peter’s father, Thomas Quilliam, came from Peel, IOM, and one of his Manx ancestors, Lt. John Quilliam, sailed in the Victory with Nelson (and indeed bequeathed his name to a second World War destroyer). Both of his parents were teachers, his mother (Maude) a linguist and his father (Thomas) a chemist. Peter was born in London and educated at University College School. At the age of 16 he won a scholarship to study medicine at UCL where, as an undergraduate, he gained a University of London rowing purple. During his medical training he also completed an MSc in Physiology, with research on visual pigments under R J Lythgoe, resulting in two important papers in the Journal of Physiology (Lythgoe & Quilliam, 1938: J.Physiol., 93,24 and 94,399) that were quoted for many years. After a final year involved in emergency medicine in the evacuated London hospital at Hemel Hempstead, he qualified in 1941 with distinction in forensic medicine and hygiene, and became a house officer at UCH and the Brompton.

From 1942 to 1943 he worked at the Ministry of Supply, and in 1943 volun-teered for service in the RAFVR, where he served in both Coastal and Fighter commands. He combined his medical duties with research into the problems experienced by aircrews on long-range sorties, and was involved in the development of anti-G force suits, sunglasses, aircraft ejection seats and jungle escape packs. He also worked on di-isopropylfluoro-phosphonate (DFP) and carried this interest through to the early post-war period, publishing papers with his brother Andrew on the uses of DFP i operative gut and bladder distension (e.g., Lancet, 1949, i, 603.)

After the War he returned to the academic world as a lecturer in Pharmacology at King’s College. In 1949, he obtained a Postgraduate Medical Federation travelling fellowship to the Johns Hopkins Hospital Medical School in Baltimore USA, to work with Carlton Hunt and Stephen Kuffler. This resulted in a crucial paper establishing the role of the efferent innervation of muscle spindles in reflex muscle contraction (Kuffler, Hunt & Quilliam, 1951: J.Neurophysiol., 14,29). On returning, and after a further period at King’s, he was invited to head the new Department of Pharmacology at Barts – first as a Senior Lecturer (in 1956), then Reader (1958), and ultimately as Professor when a new Chair was created in 1962. This chair he held until he retired in 1983.

At King’s he had begun to use the electrophysiological recording techniques acquired at the Johns Hopkins (Quilliam, 1955: Br J Pharmacol, 10,141; Nicholls & Quilliam, 1956: Br J Pharmacol 11,151) and this approach became the mainstay of his research at Barts. There he recruited Peter Bell (a multi-talented electronic engineer) and Don Mason (from the May and Baker company), to be joined by Brian Prichard (a post-MSc from Kings’) and David Boullin (PhD student). The following year (1957), fortified by funds from the US Office of Aerospace Research and other sources, he was able to recruit three more PhD students (myself included). Because it was one of the first Pharmacology departments to use electronic recording methods, the Barts Department became a marvellous training ground for research students – especially as ‘Q’ encouraged early independence, and students could also access the expertise of Peter Bell (and his successors) and the wisdom and depth of knowledge of Don Mason. Further, though small in staff numbers (like most medical school departments at that time), its breadth and ambience was greatly enhanced by a steady flow of clinical pharmacologists, including (inter alia) Paul Turner and Mike Besser, who introduced such techniques as optical critical flicker-fusion and auditory critical flutter-fusion. In all, of the postgraduate students and research fellows working under Q’s umbrella at Kings and Barts, 24 later obtained Chairs and three were elected FRS – a pretty remarkable record for a small department, and an impressive testament to Q’s mentorship.

But it was not just the research - Q took the teaching of the 100 medical students equally seriously (an inheritance from Kings). So, for one day each week throughout the year, all of us (PhD students included) downed tools and prepared for the afternoon’s teaching which involved the weekly lecture (usually by Q), then 10 simultaneous afternoon practicals, or a live demonstration, and tutorials. For the demonstrations, Q pioneered the introduction of CCTV and video-recording. In addition to the conventional organ-bath work, the practicals also included a number of experiments which the students carried out on themselves – pricking themselves to test local anaesthetics, gazing into each others’ eyes after instilling homatropine, dosing themselves with purgatives or inhaling amyl nitrite – all assiduously written up in a well produced course book “Experimental Pharmacology” by Brownlee & Quilliam and marked before the next week’s session. As a result, Q’s pharmacology course invariably came “top of the class” in the preclinical students’ questionnaires.

As General Secretary of the Society, Q will probably be remembered for the understated, dry humour of his meet-ings reports. The meetings themselves also gained from his keenness on electrical gadgets, via the introduction of the 15 minute traffic lights for timing communications. (At a meeting of a rival society, these were notoriously supplemented by the appearance of a pair of very realistic daleks exclaiming “Exterminate!, Exterminate!” to an overlong communicant.) Q also took journal press-editorship seriously – as indeed it had to be in Pre-Microsoft times, when re-typing a paper was very tedious and to be avoided at all costs. This experience he carried over into the detailed editing of his students’ efforts at paper and thesis production – his students could never complain that their supervisor hadn’t read their papers!

After retiring from Barts, Peter became Chairman of the BMA Board of Science (having been member of the Council since 1971). In this role, he co-authored several influential BMA reports on the Medical Effects of Nuclear War (1983), Boxing (1984), Young People and Alcohol (1986), and Alternative Therapy (1986), among others – revealing a strong social conscience that may have surprised some. He did sterling service for the University of London, as Chairman of Convocation from 1973 to 1990 and Trustee from 1990 to 1999. He retained a lifelong interest in vision and for many years he acted as examiner for the British Optical Association and served on the General Optical Council from 1975 to 1988, including spells as deputy chairman and chairman of two of its key committees. Peter also made enormous contributions to public service in other areas. Thus, in 1983, he became a Co-Founder and Co-Chairman of the charity “Help the Hospices”, to provide a national voice for fund-raising and help for the hospice move-ment, which was otherwise lacking.

In spite of his rather austere and reserved persona, Q was always kind and helpful to his junior colleagues and students. Indeed, as a mark of their thanks, on his 80th birthday his former students presented him with a festschrift of some of their collected papers. In a way that was highly original and charming, he would always (except when abroad) maintain an apparently exaggerated formality of dress and of language. He always wore a tie and a suit, and (with very few exceptions) preserved second-name terms for people with whom he had worked for twenty years or more. After a dinner at a colleague’s home, the wife, who had met Q for the first time, said “That is a man who does his very best to hide the fact that he is brilliant”. A delight was his use of language in conversation, long convoluted phrases and skilful humorous uses of cliché, matching P.G. Wodehouse.

He is survived by his wife Barbara, two children (Penny and Jonathan) and three grandchildren. Many pharmacologists and physiologists have reason to be grateful to him, and will remember him with a mixture of respect, admiration and affection. His family arms bear the motto “mens agitate molem” (mind moves matter) – an appropriate epitaph.

David Brown
(with valued help from Penny Quilliam, Andrew Quilliam and John Nicholls)