Obituary: Professor David Sinclair, educator and anatomist

Professor David Sinclair
Professor David Sinclair
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Born: 28 August, 1915, in Forfar. Died: 30 April, 2013, in Aberdeen, aged 97

Had it not been for a cat bite, David Sinclair would, in all probability, have become a surgeon.

However, the injury led to a deformity of his right index finger, an impediment that put an end to a promising surgical career. His natural second choice was anatomy, a subject he had excelled in at St Andrews University, and a decision that saw him reach the top of his chosen field at home and on the other side of the world.

An expert in skin sensation, a gifted educator and prolific ­author, he was the founding ­professor of anatomy at the University of Western Australia (UWA), where he attended a golden jubilee celebration last year via videolink, and the pen­ultimate professor of anatomy at Aberdeen University.

Having first been to Australia during the Second World War to investigate the effects of chemical warfare, he was drawn back in the 1950s. Though he spent the happiest years of his life there, he was forced to ­return to Scotland following a spurious diagnosis that his asthma was exacerbated by the Australian pollens. Ironically, the Scottish pollen was just as bad and he later returned Down Under, only coming back to his roots in retirement.

Originally from Forfar, where his father was medical officer of health for the county, he was edu­cated at Edinburgh’s Merchiston Castle School before going up to St Andrews on a scholarship in 1932.

After graduating MB ChB in 1937, he became neurology assistant in St Andrews’ anatomy department and began his research into cutaneous sensation. During his time at St Andrews he was also a warden at St Salvator’s College.

In 1940 he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and was responsible for successfully evacuating a field hospital, with all its patients and staff, from Dunkirk.

He was later posted to the government’s military science facility, Porton Down, as a graded pathologist and then sent as medical officer to the biological warfare team researching anthrax on Gruinard Island, off the north-west coast of Scotland.

From there was posted to ­Innisfail in Queensland, Australia, to research the effects of mustard gas on soldiers fighting in the tropics and went to great lengths to ensure that these field trials on volunteers were conducted ethically.

As the war began to draw to a close Sinclair, who rose to the rank of major, married Elizabeth Simondson, the officer in charge of an Australian Women’s Army Service contingent, in Melbourne in January 1945. They went on to have a son and a daughter.

After the war ended he continued his studies, gaining his MD at St Andrews in 1947 and MA the following year from Oxford where he was taken under the wing of anatomy professor Wilfred Le Gros Clark who encouraged his continuing research in cutaneous sensation and supported his ideas about reducing the burden of excessive topical anatomy knowledge imposed on British undergraduates by the General Medical Council.

At Oxford Sinclair became an extremely gifted communicator in the dissecting room and lecture theatre, always imparting information to students in an outstandingly clear and unambiguous manner.

In 1953, with a Rockefeller Foundation grant, he studied advances in medical education in America, in particular at Western Reserve University.

He published these ideas a couple of years later in the book Medical Students And Medical Sciences. This was followed by A Student’s Guide To Anatomy and the popular An Introduction To Functional Anatomy – a book for the paramedical professions which went through many editions.

By 1956 he was back in Australia, as foundation professor of anatomy at UWA where, at the brand new medical school, he was able to put into practice his progressive ideas about medical education. In 1962, he took a sabbatical to Europe to collate knowledge about the skin’s perception of pain and temperature and subsequently wrote the book Cutaneous Sensation.

But in the mid-1960s the Australian wildflowers needlessly brought to an end that period of his working life in the southern hemisphere. Doctors told him that getting away from the pollens would improve his asthma so he moved back to Scotland in 1965, having gained a DSc from UWA that year, to take up the regius chair of anatomy at Aberdeen University.

Among his achievements in Aberdeen was the establishment of a memorial, at the city’s Trinity Cemetery, to those who had donated their bodies to science. He also wrote the texts Human Growth After Birth and Basic Medical Education.

Sinclair, who throughout his career had contributed to a number of other books including the musculoskeletal section of Cunningham’s Anatomy, was also editor of the Journal of Anatomy, a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and a member of the ­Anatomical Societies of Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

In 1973 his life changed forever with the death of his wife and a couple of years later he took the opportunity to return to Western Australia as postgraduate dean at the Sir Charles Gairdner hospital just outside Perth.

On retiring to Aboyne in Aber­deenshire in 1980 he pursued many interests and became devoted to his walking companion, Bruce the cocker spaniel.

An excellent pianist, photographer and jigsaw maker, Sinclair was also an accomplished golfer and shot, but his greatest love was writing.

He tried to emulate the prose of his favourite author PG Wodehouse and produced many amusing articles for the Lancet, later collected in the volume Outside the Dissecting Room in 1989. His autobiography, Not a Proper Doctor, was published that same year.

He is survived by son Colin, daughter Anne, three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.