Obituary: Professor George John Romanes CBE

Born: 2 December, 1916, in Edinburgh. Died: 9 April, 2014, in Skye, aged 97

Professor George Romanes: Skilled anatomy lecturer and editor who was known for his wisdom and courtesy
Professor George Romanes: Skilled anatomy lecturer and editor who was known for his wisdom and courtesy

George John Romanes’s death marks a tipping point in the history of the Edinburgh Medical School. Thirty or more cohorts of Edinburgh-trained doctors still cherish his memory and remember with a smile his mannerisms and anecdotes and indeed the impact of his enthusiasm on their lives.

Although he saw lecturing effectively to medical students as his most important role, others knew him as a highly innovative scientist, others as an effective, efficient, intelligent and fair-minded administrator. All of these talents were appreciated by those who he befriended and nurtured during the 30 years he spent in retirement in Kishorn as a beachcomber, small holder and family man.

Born in Edinburgh in 1916, George was educated at the Edinburgh Academy, the University of Cambridge and the University of Edinburgh. At Cambridge, he read for the Natural Sciences Tripos, graduating BA in 1938.

During the tenure of the Marmaduke Shield Scholarship in Human Anatomy (1938-40), and in 1939 his appointment to a Demonstratorship in Anatomy, he completed his PhD in Anatomy. In 1941, he returned to his medical studies and finished the clinical part of his medical course in Edinburgh and graduated MB, ChB in 1944.

He then returned to Cambridge for two years, as a Beit Memorial Fellow for Medical Research. In 1946, Romanes was appointed Lecturer in Neuro-anatomy in Edinburgh and spent 1949-50 in the Department of Neurology in Columbia University, New York, funded by a Commonwealth Fund Fellowship.

In 1954 he succeeded JC Brash as Professor of Anatomy to become the 12th holder of the Chair since its institution in 1705. He retired in 1984, having spent 30 years as a member of the university’s staff.

Soon after his appointment to the Chair, Professor Romanes arranged for a substantial amount of structural alterations to be carried out in his new department, thereby improving the accommodation for teaching and research.

Importantly, restructuring the Anatomical Museum allowed the installation, in 1958, of one of the first electron microscopes in the UK. The university was well repaid when Alan Muir was among the first to describe the fine structure of heart muscle and later with Alan Peters the structure of the neuromuscular junction.

George was also publishing papers that have stood the test of time. In particular he was able to show in the spinal cord that the large neurones supplying individual muscles are clustered together in discrete nuclei termed pools that are arranged in register with the position of the limb muscles they are programmed to innervate.

Furthermore, in a now classic paper published in 1951, Romanes showed that the pools of motor neurones innervating the muscles that act together to control a limb joint are themselves grouped together into larger clusters – thus uncovering a remarkable positional registration between a motor neuron and its target muscle.

George reasoned that “all the higher parts of the central nervous system would be organised in a similar basic way”, a premise that is now gathering experimental support.

Modern work, discussed with George, using transgenic mice, has confirmed the location and functional utility of the motor neurone pools and in addition shown how the rest of the spinal cord network, including the connection of the sensory nerves, is dependent on the positional template first described by George.

In 1959, Professor Romanes was appointed chairman of the board of management of the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh and Associated Hospitals.

In this role, he was eminently fair and meticulous, and demonstrated the patience of Job during some of the seemingly never-ending and circuitous discussions.

He recognised the primary responsibility of the board of management, to serve the patients in the various hospitals under its charge. He held this demanding office for 15 years.

In 1971, his contribution was recognised by the award of the CBE. Although his period of chairmanship ended at the time of the 1974 reorganisation of the National Health Service, experience gained in that capacity was to serve him, and the Faculty of Medicine, in good stead during his four years as Dean, from 1979 to 1983.

Professor Romanes became Dean at the time when cutbacks in university finance really began to bite. In this role, his long experience of chairing committees proved invaluable. He could keep the tone of discussions level, while at the same time detecting flaws in arguments advanced in debate and correcting these without hurting or humiliating others.

He could also cut the bombastic down quickly and effectively. He was determined that Edinburgh medicine would suffer as little as possible.

Professor Romanes held the unshakable opinion that the UK health departments must not be allowed to take over responsibility for the clinical schools from universities. He consistently maintained this view in another important forum, as a member of the medical sub-committee of the University Grants Committee.

Despite outside commitments, Professor Romanes maintained his personal contributions to scholarship. For 21 years he was a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Anatomy.

At the same time he was editor of Cunningham’s Textbook of Anatomy and of Cunningham’s Manuals of Dissection, both demanding tasks that had come to be identified with the holder of the Chair of Anatomy in the University of Edinburgh.

His stature as an anatomist was recognised by the University of Glasgow when it awarded him the Honorary Degree, of DSc in 1983, in the William Hunter Bicentenary Year and The Royal Scottish Academy elected him Professor of Anatomy as a scientist, somewhat earlier, by his election to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1955 and the Aesculapian Society of Edinburgh in 1962.

On retiring, George walked away from nearly all his administrative duties but retained his interest in the text books he had nurtured over the years. The dissection manuals remain works of art and are much in demand in the USA and are still available on Amazon.

However, he was never idle and he set about turning the family’s summer cottage on the edge of Loch Kishorn looking straight out on to the north shore of Skye into a stunning and productive garden.

Even in his mid-nineties George was very much in control of a garden on a slope of 30 degrees. In addition to vegetables and fruit, he grew outstanding meconopsis, stunning rhododendrons and cardiocrinum.

The overflowing Courthill Chapel at George’s funeral was a clear testament to his enviable relationship with his neighbours in Kishorn and Lochcarron. Like his students in Edinburgh, they were captivated by this wise, caring and courteous man. During the service only a few of the many stories about George were retold by his daughters and two grandchildren.

One of his grandchildren described how George would reply immediately to the simplest e-mail with several lines of immaculately composed text.

George’s wife, Muriel Grace Adam, died in 1992 and he is survived by his daughters Mullie, Marny, Wendy and Prudy and grandchildren Romana, David, Grace, Tom and Sam.

A celebration of George’s life will take place in Edinburgh at a later date.