Obituaries

Patrick Mollison

BMJ 2012; 344 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.e1233 (Published 22 February 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e1233
  1. Peter Davies
  1. petergdavies{at}ntlworld.com

A pioneer in transfusion medicine

Patrick Mollison, who has died aged 97, was known as “the father of transfusion medicine.” His work enabled blood to be stored for longer, and his research on blood grouping and matching made transfusion safer. Renowned as the author of the classic textbook on transfusion, Blood Transfusion in Clinical Medicine, he was also one of the first doctors to enter the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp at the end of the second world war.

As a junior doctor at St Thomas’ Hospital, London, on the outbreak of war, Mollison was dispatched to one of the capital’s four blood supply depots, at Sutton. Initially, his only job was to take blood from donors and build stocks for treating civilian casualties. During the Blitz he delivered blood on demand to hospitals, driving a small van with partially masked sidelights through the blackout, then helping transfuse patients.

When the Medical Research Council began a programme at the depot, Mollison and a colleague carried out a systematic study of acidified citrate dextrose solutions (ACDs). They discovered that blood stored in ACD was harmless to the transfusion recipient and that survival of red blood cells after storage was much improved. Their paper published in 1943 led to ACD becoming the usual preservative for blood and solved a major problem faced by transfusion units early in the war­—the short shelf life of stored blood (BMJ 1943;2:744, doi:10.1136/bmj.2.4327.744). The method was not improved until the 1970s.

Mollison joined the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1943 and arrived at Belsen, in northwest Germany, two days after its liberation. He studied starvation among the prisoners of Bergen-Belsen, reporting his findings in the BMJ (BMJ 1946;1:4, doi:10.1136/bmj.1.4435.4). The article, of historical importance, is no less moving for its tone of clinical detachment: “On examination the patient had an appallingly thin face. The eyes were sunken and the cheek-bones jutted out. These extreme changes made all the patients look alike, so that it became difficult to distinguish one from another.”

Patrick Mollison was born in 1914, the son of an otolaryngologist at Guy’s Hospital, London. Brought up in a household with eight servants and a chauffeur, he was sent to Rugby School, which he detested. Not judged academically able, he left early and took extra biology classes before being admitted to read natural sciences at Clare College, Cambridge, where his grandfather had been master. He became an accomplished squash player and learned to fly a Tiger Moth, but earned a degree that he said would not have got him accepted into the department he later headed.

Nevertheless, he recalled, “It had always been understood that I would go into medicine. My father was determined on it and I could see nothing against it.” Mollison joined St Thomas’ Hospital, qualifying in 1938, and toyed with specialising in paediatrics until his wartime experience in transfusion. His son Denis said, “He wasn’t expected to have a stratospheric career, and it was a surprise to him how successful he was. It was a happy coincidence that he found something he was good at in a new field much in demand, and at an exciting time with a lot of pressure to make advances.”

After the war the Medical Research Council gave Mollison a grant to set up a blood transfusion research unit, housed in a tiny room next to the obstetrics ward at Hammersmith Hospital. He studied haemolytic disease among newborn babies, and the first replacement transfusion in the UK on a baby born with Rh factor related blood poisoning took place on a laboratory bench in his unit.

In 1951 he published Blood Transfusion in Clinical Medicine, the definitive textbook that is still judged indispensable to every haematologist and transfusion laboratory. Though later editions were coauthored, he did not entirely relinquish control until 1997. Now known simply as “Mollison,” the 12th edition was published a month after his death.

Mollison moved to St Mary’s Hospital, London, to head its new haematology department in 1960 and took his research unit with him. Marcella Contreras, who worked with him there in the 1970s and cowrote the textbook’s eighth edition, recalled him as generous with his knowledge though “strict and particular” and insistent on attention to detail. “He had an international reputation—and still does. If you mentioned the word ‘transfusion’ it was synonymous with Mollison. Obstetricians had high respect for him too. He created clinical transfusion medicine as a specialty in its own right.”

London University made him professor of haematology in 1962, and he became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1968. He was consulted by the Queen during the birth of all her children. Mollison retired from St Mary’s in 1979, and was appointed commander of the order of the British empire (CBE) the same year. He was active in retirement, still skiing at 86. His wife gave him a Mercedes sports car for his 90th birthday, which he drove “fast and well,” according to his son.

Patrick Mollison married Margaret Peirce, a doctor from Cape Town, in 1940. They divorced in 1965. He married Jennifer Jones, a consultant anaesthetist at St Mary’s, in 1973. He leaves three sons from his first marriage.

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e1233

Footnotes

  • Patrick Loudon Mollison, professor of haematology (b 1914; q 1938, Cambridge and London) died on 26 November 2011 from a stroke.