Miles Vaughan Williams DM DSc FRCP, Tutor in Medicine 1955-1985
Miles was the first full Science Fellow at Hertford and was appointed in 1955. He made major contributions to the teaching and well-being of students in Hertford and to the development of the College whilst at the same time establishing an international scientific reputation in pharmacology.
Keith McLauchlan, Emeritus Professor of Chemistry and a tutorial fellow alongside Miles, writes:
It is a measure of Miles that one is distressed by his death despite his advanced age. The college, and science and medicine, owe him a great debt. I have written previously in the college magazine about his career first as a Greats man at Wadham, then as an ambulance driver, followed by turning to medicine and finally to pharmacology, a remarkable career by any standards and one that would be almost impossible to follow today. Here I shall re-tell more personal memories.
He was the first full science Fellow in Hertford but shortly after his appointment he persuaded the Governing Body that the college needed a “real scientist”, which is how Neil Tanner came to be recruited. So Miles had a hand in all that Neil accomplished. At the time of Miles’ election he was only the ninth Fellow. My earliest memory of him was the celebratory party he gave on the birth of his son. At the time the SCR cellars had a remarkable collection of port, and on that evening Miles caused all the major vintages of the early 20th century to be served – 1908, 1927 and 1947. All the port experts of Oxford were invited and they sipped each with awe, several refusing to taste anything after the 1908. To my un-educated palate it just tasted musty.
Entirely off his own bat Miles decided to improve the kitchens and the general fabric of the College. He designed, and oversaw, the re-development of OB1, OB2 and the Old Library. His piece-de-resistance, however, was his design for the Holywell Quadrangle for which a professional architect won a prize by following Miles’ design, especially his determination to preserve a view of New College. But, interestingly, the Governing Body were almost unaware of the extreme effort he made and how significant his input was. Miles was always a very modest man.
This is but one example of how little members of the GB know about each other or each other’s achievements. It was never “decent” to talk about such things as one’s own research. Thus we were unaware that whilst he was transforming the well-being of the students he was also acquiring a major international scientific reputation. It was Miles that realized that after a major heart infarction people died when they experienced an atrial fibrillation. He researched this very carefully, largely using apparatus that he built himself, and in the days before beta blockers were introduced established an index that prescribed which drugs to administer given a specific set of symptoms. This Index was taught worldwide in pharmacology schools. His work was recognized internationally, not least by the award of an honorary doctorate from the Sorbonne. The income which accrued from his consultancies created the Vaughan Williams fund in college.
But my greatest memories are of his approachability and of his slightly sardonic sense of humour. Smiles readily appeared on his face and he was the best of company. To my mind he was one of the most significant Fellows the college has ever had. No-one put more into it than he did and no-one did more to increase its reputation through his own research. The pity was that we did not know this until after his retirement. But I would be remiss not to mention the contribution of his wife, Marie. She was completely supportive, for some years effectively the First Lady of the college, and is much loved by all of us from that era.
Miles was born in Bangalore, India, the second of four sons; this caused later complications for he had no birth certificate. His father, who was a first cousin of Ralph Vaughan Williams, was an engineer in charge of all the steam engines, locomotive and otherwise, of the Madras and Southern Maharata Railways, a subsidiary of the Great Western Railway in England. His mother returned to England regularly, as was the custom for women in the Raj, and he made five journeys to and from India with her before being sent at the age of 6 to his preparatory school, Crowthorne Towers, in England. His next visit to India was many years later whilst on Sabbatical Leave from the College.
His secondary education was at Wellington whence he entered Wadham College in 1937 to read “Greats” (Latin, Greek, Ancient History and Philosophy); he took Mods in Classics. His interest in the humanities continues and is apparent in his writing. In 1939 all 20 year-olds were called up for the forces but this was postponed to the end of their course for students already in residence. At this time he had a great interest in poetry and short stories and was a co-editor (with John Waller and Kenneth Harris) of the poetry magazine “Kingdom Come” of which 9 editions were published in 1939-1942. He personally contributed to “Augury – an Oxford miscellany of Verse and Prose” ed. by A.M. Hardie and K.C. Douglas which was published in 1940.
Having been born during the First World War Miles, like many of his contemporaries, was strongly pacifistic but he felt that he and his similarly inclined friends should nevertheless contribute to the country’s needs. He consequently established a group of Oxford and Cambridge students and discussed with them what contribution they could make. This episode is described in “Six weeks at Hawkspur Green: a pacifist episode during the Battle of Britian” by Peter Brock. He persuaded them to take First Aid lessons and to obtain their qualifying certificates and then to form the Universities Ambulance Service, an idea derived from the Friends Ambulance Service of the First World War. During the London Blitz Miles ran a Public School mission in a Church Hall which provided inter alia an air raid shelter before the inmates were evacuated to the country. After the Blitz had ended he joined the British Volunteer Ambulance Service for the period 1940-1943 and was posted to serve with the Medical Officer of the Durham Light Infantry in Northumberland, acting both as a driver and a medical assistant.
This proved a career changing experience. He realised that “if this man can be a doctor I can!” and he set about attaining the necessary qualifications to enter a medical course at the University. This was helped by him already having an unclassified B.A. under war-time rules, and being a member of Wadham. He acquired a copy of the Examination Statutes and commenced a period of self-teaching. Chemistry and Physics were acquired by reading in the West Hartlepool library before he took and passed Science Prelims, doing his first ever practical work during them. Next he needed to pass Biology Prelims for which the preparation was again done in Northumberland. With the aid of books, with a surprisingly uncensorious landlady, and with specimens supplied through the post he learned to dissect a frog, a dogfish and then a rabbit before once more returning to Oxford to sit the Prelim. Finally he made his own chemistry set to teach himself organic chemistry before taking that Prelim. in Oxford in 1942.
In the meantime a number of medical students at Wadham had failed their own Prelims and the College agreed that Miles should take one of their places, generously supporting him with payment of fees and a scholarship. He therefore resigned from the Ambulance Service. The need for further funds saw him become a hospital porter in the Radcliffe Infirmary where he did shift work from 10.00 p.m. until 6.00 a.m before attending lectures at 9.00. He eventually became a theatre porter and was even allowed to administer anaesthetics. He graduated with B.M. and Ch.B degrees in 1947. Half way through his pre-clinical course he became interested in pharmacology and obtained a B.Sc. after one year. He then continued with his clinical work in Oxford, becoming a Houseman at the Churchill Hospital. With encouragement from the Professor of Pharmacology, J.H. Burn, he became a Senior Student of the 1851 Exhibition before going to John Hopkins’ University in Baltimore for two years as a Rockefeller Travelling Fellow. He eventually submitted his thesis for a D.M., rather than the more conventional D.Phil.
In 1954, whilst on holiday in France he met Marie de Lagarde and they married in 1956. It being a requirement of French Law, Miles underwent medical tests before this happened and was astounded to find he had advanced tuberculosis. Luckily streptomycin had just been introduced and this undoubtedly saved his life. Miles and Marie have two daughters and a son.
An accidental meeting with an old friend in Oxford led to a dinner invitation at which another guest was Felix Markham. He and Miles arranged to play golf and during the round Felix suggested he might like to dine in Hertford on a night when the entire teaching Fellowship of eight people turned up (there were also two professorial fellows). Soon after Principal Murphy called to arrange a meeting at which Miles was offered a Fellowship. No mention of this possibility had previously been made and it came as a complete surprise although it later transpired that the College had decided to appoint a scientist. Despite a strong recommendation against by Professor Burn Miles accepted. After taking up his Fellowship he persuaded the College to appoint a “real” scientist, Neil Tanner. About this time Professor Burn decided to send him to Liverpool University for a spell to learn new techniques and whilst there he met architecture students who, to the great benefit of the College, interested him in their subject.
He describes the College when he joined it as a complete slum. In the Old Quadrangle the only toilets were in the open air (although protected by doors and a roof) behind the Old Chapel, then functioning as a decrepit library. An influenza epidemic saw students, some with high fever, queuing across the quadrangle to use them. Miles introduce “elsan” chemical toilets on each staircase. At the same time Norman Bayliss took him into the kitchens to show him their unhygienic state. He concluded that Hertford was barely fit for human habitation and “something had to be done”. With no dispensation from his demanding other duties, and with no thought of being paid to do it, he took it on himself systematically to improve the living space at a time when the College was spectacularly poor. To him this implied that he should do all the design work and supervise the building operations.
His first move was to introduce wash basins with hot and cold (H and C) running water and a W.C. into OB2. Previously the scouts had taken jugs of hot water to each room every morning. Work on some of the New Building staircases followed, with re-wiring, installation of wash basins with H and C running water, W.C’s and some bathrooms. In this quadrangle, too, the only previous W.C’s were outside the buildings. An MCR (now the Ferrar Room) was established at the top of the Hall staircase whilst an extensive redevelopment of OB1 involved inter alia the removal of existing chimney stacks and the complete development of the basement. The Cottage was gutted and rebuilt from the inside. A new library was created by demolishing the old toilets, introducing a new floor at the bottom of the windows in the Old Chapel, and extending it over the area created by the demolition; a “well” to the East of the Principal’s lodgings was incorporated as a book stack.
Thanks to the generosity of Merton College, which sold us the Holywell houses under very sympathetic terms, it then became possible to extend the College substantially by creating the Holywell Quadrangle. The Draper’s Company, with which the College has long associations, made a generous gift towards its building but suggested that we employed architects who produced modernistic plans which were considered inappropriate, and they were subsequently dismissed. This caused Miles to consider the site and when the new architect, Peter Shepherd, then President of the Royal College of Architects, was appointed he presented his plans to him. What can be seen today hardly differs from these. They included a new JCR, and the Octagon was then converted to the MCR.
This was Miles’ final contribution to changing the fabric of the College. No Fellow in its history has accomplished anything on this scale (although Neil Tanner then oversaw some major planning and alterations himself) and it should be re-iterated that he did it all without dispensation from other duties, and with no personal gain.
Remarkably whilst this was going on Miles established for himself a major reputation in world science. He has published more than 220 papers and three books and is referred to widely as outstanding in his field. Unusually many of his papers are published as from Hertford College rather than his department, and his writing and feel for humanity disclose his classical training. His papers demonstrate that he was an experimentalist of the highest ability and he made all his often ingenious apparatus himself. He transformed the techniques used in his areas of interest and his work is characterized by a great clarity in defining his problem. He did not do “postage stamp collecting” research but rather each project was attempted for a specific reason. His greatest characteristic is that he was concerned not so much with whether a given drug was efficacious but with how it worked; that is its precise function. This allowed him to make major advances, leading to the “Vaughan Williams index”, of which more below.
His initial work was on the action and mechanism of drugs concerned with intestinal motility. It continued as a minor interest throughout his career, with some notable papers concerned with cholera. It had been assumed that the action of this bacillus was entirely in the intestine but he showed that it appeared in other parts of the body, notably in the blood stream. This is typical Miles – a refusal to accept received wisdom without re-assuring himself it is correct.
His major interest, and contribution, lies however in studies of fibrillation and arrhythmia in which he became a world expert. It had been supposed that death due to coronary thrombosis was due to pump failure in a heart largely deprived of its blood supply but the introduction of new techniques and of coronary care units in hospitals, which facilitated their early use, made it apparent that 95% of those who survived myocardial infarcation experienced arrhythmias within the first 48 hours thereafter. It is now recognised that ventricular fibrillation is the commonest cause of sudden death. Miles’ huge contribution was to put the treatment of this condition with drugs on a firm scientific basis, largely through use of electro-physiological measurements. He realised that the drugs used had a number of different modes of action, some of which involved ion conduction channels (fast ones with sodium ions, a slower one with calcium ions), all of which had to be studied. Not only did this provide a proper basis for understanding how any particular drug worked but it was of direct importance to prescribing correct treatments for the patient. He identified four distinct modes of action and introduced the Vaughan Williams index of anti-arrhythmic actions which is still used (in up-dated form) and taught in Schools of Pharmacology. He was one of the first in the world to work on beta-blockers, which have kept so many alive since.
He has consulted with all the Pharmacology companies who have worked on these drugs in the U.K., using them to finance his research, pay for his students and to support the College; this is the origin of the Vaughan Williams fund which exists today.
Unsurprisingly, this work has received World recognition. He is an Honorary Fellow of the American College of Clinical Pharmacology, a rare honour for a non-American citizen. Besides the degrees mentioned above he has acquired a D.Sc., and is a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians. He was known in the U.K. as “Mr. Anti-arrhythmic drugs”. He has delivered a vast number of invited plenary lectures at international conferences, being the automatic choice, and he has an honorary doctorate from the University of Paris (The Sorbonne). On occasion he has graced Oxford events wearing its insignia which are rather more exuberant than their Oxford analogues.
Hertford College has been fortunate in having amongst its Fellowship this remarkable scientist who somehow found the time to transform its buildings and amenities, and we are delighted to celebrate his birthday with this acknowledgment. Long may he continue to play golf, which he does once a week still to a much higher level of achievement than does the author.
Miles died on 31 August 2016.
- Read Hertford Revivals – Miles Vaughan Williams’ personal recollections about Hertford College