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Department of Pathology


LetterWe celebrated our 120th Anniversary in 2003. It was in 1883 that a group of influential medical men in Cambridge decided that there ought to be academic leadership in Pathology, and convinced the University to found a Chair. Charles Roy was the first incumbent, succeeded in 1897 by the scholarly Alfredo Kanthack, who had been his Deputy. Kanthack was young (just 34 when he took the Chair), but already carried an international reputation and had eclectic interests - phagocytosis, snakebite venoms, tetanus, thyroglossal cysts, and football.

The use of formalin as a histological fixative (now so routine that we forget it was ever undiscovered) is credited to him, and his wife donated funds with which to establish the Department of Pathology Library, which still bears his name. His career ended abruptly, however, for he died only 13 months after appointment to the Chair in Cambridge, and was succeeded by German Sims Woodhead. Woodhead was a builder, and by the time he died in office in 1922 the Department was housed in a new Medical School (now a part of the Zoology buildings) and a new course and examination in Pharmacology and Pathology had become an essential part of undergraduate medical education, colloquially referred to as "Bugs and Drugs".

He was followed by Henry Roy Dean, who - in his phenomenally long reign from 1922 to 1961 - moved the Department to fine new buildings in Tennis Court Road (where part of it is still located), at the rear of the old Addenbrooke's Hospital, and set up teaching in the principles of Pathology in the second and third undergraduate years that evolved into our present veterinary, natural science and preclinical medical Tripos courses. One of his staff, Ronald Greaves, developed reliable methods for freeze drying plasma, the process now known as lyophilisation, which saved many lives during the Second World War. Greaves held the Chair from 1962 to 1975.

There followed the much-loved Peter Wildy. By this time Pathology as a subject had diversified to many subspecialties: immunology, virology, bacteriology, parasitology and cellular pathology, and the dehiscence of the basic science and medical diagnostic aspects of these subjects were already evident in many centres in the UK. Wildy was a virologist interested in the biology of herpes simplex, but he gathered a team of able colleagues who represented the whole spectrum of Pathology and he succeeded in keeping the Department in Cambridge together, unlike the situation in most other UK Universities at that time, and despite movement of around a third of the staff to the new Addenbrooke's site, three miles south of Tennis Court Road. Many of those he appointed form the backbone of the Department's senior staff today, whilst others lead major Departments elsewhere.

Malcolm Ferguson-Smith, a distinguished medical geneticist from Glasgow, held the Chair from 1987 to 1998. He emphasised the importance in Pathology of analysis of the genome, and so positioned the Department well for the 21 st Century. He also established medical genetics as a thriving clinical discipline in East Anglia and spawned the new University Department of that name within the Clinical School. In his last year in the Chair of Pathology he was co-opted by the Government to the team of three that led the inquiry into the causes of the BSE epidemic. Professor Ferguson-Smith is still active in research, as an emeritus professor within the Cambridge Vet School.