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358pp Price £25 ISBN 0-19-262927-1
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001 .
Hugh Sinclair was born and brought up with advantages of money, social connections from an Army and distinguished engineering family, an impressive physique and lots of intelligence. As a medical student he became interested in a wide range of topics related to nutrition and biochemistry and how these interacted to determine health. He became leader of the Oxford Nutrition Survey in the 1940s, and Reader in Nutrition with his own laboratory. He then lost his post and his laboratory, and never published significant laboratory or clinical work. Why does this apparent story of promise and failure rate a biography?
I knew him as a tutor who did not care if we failed anatomy exams, as long as we learnt the importance of considering evidence. As director of the human nutrition laboratory he asked me to join him for a year as a postgraduate. We worked in a pair of large Nissen huts in the grounds of the Churchill Hospital. One day when Hugh was working in the laboratory a bench away from me, his secretary brought me a note from him to the effect that, while I might whistle tunelessly, he had better things to do than to listen to me. I was a bit surprised; I did not know that little notes were the way Hugh normally communicated at home, with his mother and sister. Nor did I know that, when he boasted gently of being one of the youngest men ever elected to the Athenaeum, he neglected to reveal his mother had bought him in, by a combination of money and connections.
Not knowing that the rude remarks which he made in the laboratory about many of the influential figures in Oxford science he also made in public, we did not realize why they got on so badly with him. He lost his laboratory and his readership. He stayed on as tutor and was later vice-president of Magdalen, but that was all. Still, he knew the right people, and when much later he went on to an ‘anticoronary’ Eskimo diet of seal meat and fish with no vegetable or land animal material, his seal was sent to him by the Danish ambassador. I remember having dinner with Hugh at Magdalen high table, an excellent meal, but Hugh ate his piece of grilled seal. He enjoyed his diet, he said, but when he pruned his roses his boots filled up with blood, because his clotting factors had been somewhat disturbed by the diet, and each scratch bled.
His style of supervision was to leave his research students to get on with it and not to advise them, except on the best kind of sherry. Sink or swim suited me, but it was not right for others. After a year's work I wrote my thesis, which was accepted. It had new ideas, but Hugh never told me to prepare a paper for publication. That was typical.
One might ask why bother to write a biography of a ‘failed’ Oxford don. There are three answers: he was an interesting man, he had one exceedingly important idea, and he exemplifies the problem that science has little place for critics. His idea was that there was an epidemic of coronary heart disease sweeping over the rich countries, and the evidence pointed to a dietary cause, which Hugh reckoned was lack of polyunsaturated fats in the diet. He was vastly knowledgeable about the published work of others, and often scathing about others' failure to understand the consequences of their own work. This did not make him universally popular.
Hugh did not have the patience needed to take a piece of laboratory work to a successful conclusion and publication. But he did know and think about other people's work. I remember a meeting of the Medical Research Society where Hugh spoke about relative deficiency of essential fatty acids. He was criticized on the grounds that margarine had plenty of polyunsaturates, and when he said that hydrogenation would convert many of these to useless cis-trans forms, there were roars of laughter at this improbable set of suggestions. Scientists do not like criticism, especially when the critic is not a laboratory achiever and is rude as well. Jeannette Ewin's biography brings out much of the strangeness of Hugh's life—the concealments, the oddities—but does not make clear how interesting he was to talk to; how, in spite of his conventional family background, he was truly interested in ideas and people who would think about things medical and scientific. He believed that epidemiology, clinical skill, and biochemistry were all required for an understanding of the way food supply altered human existence. In this he was a pioneer, though the huge data collection from his survey of nutrition at the end of the war, in Holland and Germany, was never analysed or published. He should have been used as a critic and consultant while others got on with the data, but then he was too difficult in his dealings with people for that to have worked well. The biography is scathing about Hugh's faults and does not capture his charm; it sets out an object lesson in how not to make friends but still, in the long run, influence people's thinking. As such it will repay reading by anyone interested in the history and development of medical science and nutrition.
We need people like Hugh Sinclair, who think about current problems in specific areas of science or medicine even if they do not contribute laboratory results or epidemiological findings. Philosophers of science deal with too broad an area to offer the detailed criticism that we need. In music or literature the critic is acknowledged as playing a vital role. Gifted critics can provide detailed analysis of a performance, and give insight and encouragement to new audiences, even though they are not performers. The science critic's role is still undefined and undervalued.