VOLUME 2 - ISSUE 2 - PROFESSOR DEREK WILLOUGHBY (1930-2004)
The scientific community mourns the sad loss from its ranks of Derek Willoughby, Emeritus Professor of Experimental Pathology and Director of the William Harvey Research Institute at Bart’s and the London, Queen Mary’s School of Medicine and Dentistry, after he lost his fight against cancer on the 13th March 2004.
His impact on our understanding of the inflammatory response was immense, with some 600 publications over nearly half a century. Throughout this time he continued to be at the cutting edge of research in this field, and was still publishing in journals such as Nature Medicine right to the end of his career. He was the youngest ever recipient of the Gold Medal of the Heberden Society in 1974. As well as Lifetime Achievement Awards at the Interscience World Congress on Inflammation in 1989 and International Inflammopharmacology Society in 2000, in August of 2003 he received the first Lifetime Achievement Award presented by the International Association of Inflammation Societies, recognising his major and extensive contributions to the field of inflammation research over his career. These were legion; they are not listed here, but can be found in the citation for this latter award in Inflammation Research (Lewis AJ, 52(11); 439-40) and in Volume 1 (Issue 3) of pA2
What hasn’t been published is a sense of the man. This can be gleaned from some of the awards he has received during his lifetime, such as the Chevalier dans L’Ordre du Merite by President Giscard d’Estaing for Services to Anglo-French collaboration in medical research, and Gold Medals from a number of Universities such as Brussels and Pisa, which have a wider implication outside of pure research.
I first met him as a medical student in 1988 working for a few weeks in his department on a research project. I can still remember with a sense of awe him coming into the lab late one night when I was finishing up some work, sitting on a stool talking about inflammation, my research and its importance and asking me for my ideas and what I thought about it all! He made an impression on me which remains with me today – this was what being a scientist and doing research was all about. This “dropping in for a chat” wasn’t a one off – he made a point of it with everyone, no matter who they were and you really felt part of the family that is Experimental Pathology. He extended a welcome to all, be they scientists, or the cleaners and catering staff, and as well as the science, he was greatly committed to his people, their welfares and their futures and engendered huge loyalty and affection. I was fortunate enough for him to offer me a chance to undertake a PhD at the end of my project – it didn’t take much thought to jump at the chance and say yes.
He was always well dressed, dapper, a true gentleman. Outside of work, he was a great fan of jazz music and was also a fastidious chef – even when dining alone he would prepare a meal to delight the eye as well as the palate. He tried to get me to gain a liking for one of his favourite dishes, tête de veaux (a speciality of the region of France where he spent a lot of his recreational time), but I am afraid that eating “glue” was never to my taste. He was also a great connoisseur of wines, though again I am afraid I never became a convert despite his best efforts. One of his greatest coups with which he always regaled us was the time when he guessed the country, the region, the chateau and the year of a wine at a friend’s party in the States!
He imbued all of us who have worked with him with a great sense of the wonder that is the human body and its responses. He humbly attributed this to other giants of the scientific community with whom he had worked, such as Sir Henry Dale, Sir William Paton, Sir Peter Medawer, Dame Honor Fell, to name but a few. Of equal importance though was that he retained a desire to ensure that we never lost sight of the fact that we were trying to help people overcome debilitating disease. He always wanted to know how what we did was going to make a difference and how we could exploit our findings to develop new ways to treat disease. Indeed, over his lifetime he made a huge contribution to the development of many new anti-inflammatory drugs through his links with industry and clinical colleagues, and the test models used routinely by many pharmaceutical companies around the world owe much to his work. Never one to avoid controversy, he was one of the first scientists to realise the involvement of complement in non-immune inflammation in the 1960’s and he carried this willingness to challenge convention throughout his career. He developed in his department the rare commodity of the opportunity and freedom to pursue an idea, no matter how unpopular to the outside world, a legacy of which everyone who has worked with him will recognise. He never lost his sense of delight at a new discovery, his push for the next idea and publication; he was truly Emeritus in name only!
He often joked that many of the researchers he had known and trained with had never retired until the end. Although he had been unwell for some time, it was only weeks before he died that we were discussing future research and collaborations; I think he would be happy that he followed in their tradition and be safe in the knowledge that his work will be continued in the Experimental Pathology group at Bart’s.
I think it fitting to end with a prayer read out at the lab the morning the group was given the sad news:
We would like to thank you for sharing your life with us and giving each of us our opportunities in science. Thank you for your inspiration, and support when we needed it most. You have been an uncle to us. Your work is a shining example, and, whilst we can never hope to equal it, you have given us something to aspire to. We are honoured by your trust in us to continue your scientific legacy: we shall do our very best to fulfil your hopes. Now is the time for you to rest, amongst the giants on whose shoulders our science stands, to sleep in peace.
God bless, Prof, and God speed.”
P R Colville-Nash