Peter Morgan Sutton

BMJ 2014; 348 doi: (Published 31 March 2014) Cite this as: BMJ 2014;348:g2466
  1. Helen Sutton

Peter Morgan Sutton was the older son of Sir Graham and Lady Doris Sutton. After receiving his education at Bishop Wordsworth School, Salisbury, and Wrekin College, Wellington, he trained in medicine at University College London, where he obtained an honours degree in anatomy, and at University College Hospital Medical School. Sutton specialised in the branch of pathology then known as morbid anatomy—the study of changes in organs and tissues, caused by disease. Successive promotions from Graham Scholar led to his becoming reader at UCH Medical School, and honorary consultant at the hospital. He also spent a year in the US, as a visiting professor in Pittsburgh.

Sutton was a superb diagnostic surgical pathologist and an outstanding teacher: known for his enthusiasm and clarity in formal lectures to medical students, over the microscope and across the autopsy table, always leavened by his impish sense of humour and lack of pomposity. He was an influential and caring mentor to trainee pathologists, quietly but effectively managing their professional development and always approachable and supportive in resolving personal difficulties. Many of his students went on to have distinguished academic careers.

Recognition of Sutton’s management skills led to his becoming vice dean of UCH Medical School from 1973 to 1978 before making a major career change aged 47, when the Public Health Laboratory Service Centre for Applied Microbiology and Research (CAMR) chose him as its first director (a post he held until he retired in 1992). Coincidentally his father had been director at the adjacent chemical defence establishment during the war years.

Under Sutton’s leadership, CAMR’s new and completely unclassified programme of research thrived, ranging from work on special pathogens, development of vaccines, and biotechnology, to the manufacture of diagnostic and therapeutic substances. CAMR’s commercial potential, including vaccine production, was identified. A new production centre allowed the fermentation plant to produce medicinal products, such as human growth hormone, and the scaling up of HIV, for use (inactivated) in diagnostic kits for AIDS. A depository for patenting and secure storage of tissue (the European Collection of Animal Cell Culture) was also built.

Sutton was highly effective in stimulating and supporting these activities while maintaining CAMR’s output of international quality research. Various staff commented that his management style was vital in ensuring that both requirements were satisfied. He contributed his particular skills to various research programme, and published jointly with several colleagues. He also maintained a very active interest in his previous research activities, from UCH.

As a pathologist of the premolecular era, Sutton was fascinated by the biology of cancer. He published a book entitled The Nature of Cancer at the age of 33, and he subsequently authored several studies of experimental liver regeneration in search of evidence for an unregulated wound healing model (along the lines of cancer as “the wound that never heals”), later turning to cell culture to investigate the growth of breast tumours.

Sutton possessed a fine sense of paradox and was struck by the great difficulty of perpetuating breast cancer in vitro, compared with cells from normal tissue or benign tumours. Another point of interest was the observation that while ovarian tumours are generally benign, testicular teratomas are malignant. This led to a suggestion, published in the Lancet, that homozygosity might be a determinant of malignancy in teratomas.

The elusive factor that Sutton strove to identify was the crucial property that endowed cancer cells with their malignant potential. This seemed to be related to their ability to transgress normal tissue barriers. One possibility was a deficit of fibrinolytic activity—the ability to prevent blood clotting—which had been shown to be associated with a powerful plasminogen activator obtained from cultured epithelial cells. This enzyme was prepared on a commercial scale at Porton Down and was the subject of a series of patents.

Despite his many duties and preoccupations, Sutton retained a deep interest in the biology of cancer and never lost sight of the quarry. He continued, while director at CAMR and even in retirement, to theorise and correspond with colleagues, about what he called “surely a soluble problem.” His later bibliography included several scientific publications on experimental fibrinolysis with his longstanding collaborator and friend, Patrick Riley, at UCL.

It was as director of CAMR that Peter began a long and friendly association with the then Salisbury Cancer Committee (which became part of Cancer Research UK in 2002). The committee often visited CAMR to see and hear about cancer research. On retiring Peter became committee vice president and later committee patron. In 2002 Sutton was also pivotal in successfully establishing Hope, the Salisbury branch of the Wessex Medical Trust, which supports early career researchers

Sutton was a visiting professor at UCL and an elected fellow of the college. Throughout his life he pursued his great love of music, literature, and philosophy.

In his later years he developed Parkinson’s disease. He leaves a wife, Helen, also a UCL medical graduate; four children; and eight grandchildren.


Cite this as: BMJ 2014;348:g2466


  • Director Public Health Laboratory Service Centre for Applied Microbiology and Research, Porton Down (b 1932; q 1956; FRCPath), d 10 February 2014.

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