Obituary: Dr Ronnie M Macrae, scientist

Born: 28 July, 1928, in Edinburgh. Died: 14 December, 2014, in Edinburgh, aged 86
Ronnie Macrae: Polymath who studied the health effects of tobacco and was an active member of several scientific societiesRonnie Macrae: Polymath who studied the health effects of tobacco and was an active member of several scientific societies
Ronnie Macrae: Polymath who studied the health effects of tobacco and was an active member of several scientific societies

Ronnie Macrae was a polymath. He was a man of towering intellect, with a large and diverse range of interests together with a rich fund of personal qualities which stood him in good stead throughout his life.

Ronald Macgregor Macrae was born in Edinburgh to Willie and Mary Macrae and from an early age demonstrated an enquiring mind. His academic potential became obvious when he won a bursary to the Royal High School of Edinburgh.

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After school, he was called up to do two years of national service in the Royal Air Force. This gave him the chance to develop his interest in engineering and mechanics as he was trained as a mechanical transport engineer.

He was posted to Egypt where there remained a great many broken down military vehicles which had been abandoned by the retreating German and Italian forces. In his off-duty hours he stripped bits from different vehicles, managed to get a few of them working and conducted races across the sands.

On demob Ronnie spent three years working in Marks & Spencer and on the buses – to raise funds to enable him to go to Edinburgh University. There he gained a first class Honours degree in bacteriology and won the class medal for his year. He followed this up with a PhD in microbiology which he completed in two years rather than the usual three.

After a year in Canada with the Research Council of Alberta, he was head-hunted and invited to join the Microbiological Research Establishment at Porton Down as a senior research fellow. There he helped to progress the production of a safe vaccine against the effects of Brucella organisms which affected animals and humans.

Ronnie always regarded his year at Porton as the happiest in his professional life, with its intellectual stimulation, camaraderie and what he called “general ambience”.

There followed a succession of senior scientific appointments in the brewing, tobacco and public health fields.

After two years as head of microbiology with the Brewing Industry Research Foundation, he made what he considered to be his quantum leap in professional life when he helped the Tobacco Research Council to develop its policy of positive product improvement, and conducted research into smoking and related health problems.

In 1970 Ronnie moved to the Central Biological Laboratories in Edinburgh. At first his peers – who were all medically qualified – were a bit sceptical of an out and out scientist joining their ranks at a senior level but they soon came to acknowledge and appreciate his consummate expertise and experience and his professional approach.

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Throughout his career Ronnie published many scientific papers, acted as an occasional lecturer and was an active member of several scientific societies, including the Medical Microbiology Scientific Group, of which he was a founder member and chairman.

In addition to his professional work Ronnie had a deep and abiding interest in and knowledge of anthropology, archaeology, astronomy and biology.

Ronnie was an avid traveller in pursuit of his interests and in retirement in the company of his dear friend, Vivienne Cochrane, he took several worldwide cruises. But not for them the cruise ship organised tours ashore. Having done extensive homework in advance of each trip they knew exactly which places of interest they wanted to visit – and did.

Ronnie also found time to gain a pilot’s licence, which enabled him to pursue his love of aircraft and of flying. At home, he was a keen gardener with a particular love of growing his own vegetables. He was also good at DIY and handled electric wiring or plumbing problems with ease.

Ronnie was a keen sportsman. He played rugby as a young man but his main activities were golf and swimming. In golf he had been a member of the Merchants, Bruntsfield and Gullane golf clubs, but confessed that his only claim to fame was when one year he represented the Merchants in the Sievewright Trophy team event at Mortonhall. It was a handicap stroke event and Ronnie went round in a gross 68 – off a handicap of 15. His opponents’ comments are not recorded!

A water polo player good enough to gain a blue at Edinburgh University, he continued to swim throughout his life. Indeed, as recently as last October, he was still swimming half a mile a day, five days a week, at his beloved Drumsheugh Baths Club. There, such was the regard and respect that the other members had for him that when he was present they kept clear of what became known as “Ronnie’s lane”.

Ronnie was a modest man of honesty and integrity, a loyal colleague and friend. He had a great sense of humour and of fun.

He was single-minded and held strong opinions which he was only too happy to share. More than a touch to the right of Genghis Khan, Ronnie loved a good argument, but woe betide anyone who had not mastered the subject as well as Ronnie invariably had.

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He was astonishingly well read, both historically and contemporarily; his grasp of politics and world events was immense, and he often predicted with uncanny accuracy the outcome of global issues.

Ronnie was married three times and with his third wife, Mary, had four daughters – Fiona, Sheena, Kate and Morag – each of whom he introduced to his own love of nature and of Scottish wildlife.

Frequent visits to the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh helped them to develop something of his love of flowers, shrubs and trees. He also introduced them to chess and cryptic crosswords. Above all, he encouraged them to be free thinkers and to question things.

Ronnie Macrae is survived by his four daughters and five grandchildren.

For those who knew him over the years, it was a privilege as well as a pleasure to have shared in his life. He will certainly be missed, but his memory will continue to be cherished by many.