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Logo of bmjThis ArticleThe BMJ
BMJ. 2007 September 15; 335(7619): 569.
PMCID: PMC1976537

Thomas Symington

Professor Sir Thomas Symington, one of the giants of morbid anatomy of the 20th century, died at the age of 92 years on 30 April 2007. A great leader and communicator, he carried out ground breaking research into the function of the adrenal gland which continues to affect the practice of medicine to this day.

His academic training and background, graduating from Glasgow University in biochemistry in 1936 and then in medicine in 1941, was to influence his entire career. Tissue histological patterns in health and disease for him were static pictures set in a single point in time that gave no inkling as to their functional properties. Accordingly, his research aims were to integrate function with structure; the adrenal gland was an ideal model. Working with his team in the 1950s and '60s , he carried out necropsies at all hours of the day and night comparing adrenal cortical structure in subjects dying suddenly with that in patients at the end of their illnesses. This led him to propose for the first time the functional zonation of the adrenal cortex. Thereafter, using new morphological and chemical techniques, an understanding of the complicated structure emerged together with an explanation of the role of the cells in different zones of the adrenal cortex with respect to the production of the various types of steroid hormones. This research opened up a new era in understanding and thence treatment of adrenal diseases. An international meeting on the adrenal in 1961 marked the culmination of the initial phase of his work in this sphere. Appointed by the University of Glasgow to the St Mungo-Notman chair of pathology in 1954, the department of pathology at Glasgow Royal Infirmary under his leadership became renowned worldwide as a centre of excellence for research and produced 11 future professors of pathology and many others in other medical and related disciplines in the United Kingdom, Canada, and United States.

He was also a teacher and motivator. He took great interest and pride in his undergraduate medical students and set up a highly regarded BSc course in pathology from which several outstanding people have come. He was always able to inspire each individual to believe, rightly or otherwise, that his or her work was the most important in the world. This interest in the next generation of academic medical scientific and research personnel extended beyond the bounds of Glasgow. In 1962 he was part of a working group sent to East Africa to look at the medical needs of Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. He was instrumental in setting up medical schools in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam and under his tutelage younger colleagues from Glasgow were seconded to develop pathology departments and advance laboratory education. Young African graduates came to Glasgow for further training.

Professor Symington wrote many seminal papers on diverse topics in endocrinology, not the least of which was his book the Functional Pathology of the Human Adrenal Gland, written while visiting professor to Stanford University, California, in 1965. This somehow brought to an end his prime interest in endocrinology and a deeper understanding of protean aspects of cancer began to emerge. These interests were to play an important part in his later career, as did his membership in the late 1960s of the scientific committee of the Cancer Research Campaign and Medical Research Council.

In 1970 at the behest of the Cancer Research Campaign and the Medical Research Council, he left Glasgow to take up the appointment of director of the Chester Beatty Cancer Research Institute in London. He worked tirelessly to improve a financially ailing splintered institute into a well funded research centre of excellence working closely with the Royal Marsden Cancer Hospital, particularly at its Sutton site in Surrey. His inspirational leadership skills, his foresight, and his expertise in organising top research teams yet again came to the fore, supporting several young researchers and clinicians and allowing them to develop their interests and careers and resulting in numerous important discoveries and innovations. His multidisciplinary approach to research now extended to overall patient care, exhibited by his passionate support and crusade for multiprofessional expert teams treating cancer. This became, years later, the NHS model of cancer care.

In 1977 he was devastated by the death of his son Robin, aged 30, from testicular cancer. This was a field in which he had great expertise, yet he felt helpless to save his own son. Ironically, the treatments he had been involved in developing at that time now offer a complete cure. He retired back home to Ayrshire with his wife, Margaret, whom he had met at medical school, and settled in Troon and was awarded a knighthood in 1978.

After graduating in medicine and working for one year in general practice, Tom's training in science and an interest in tuberculosis led him into a career in pathology at Glasgow Royal Infirmary. It was here that his interest in adrenal gland pathology, initially of the medulla, started, resulting in the award of an MD with honours in 1951. His career at Glasgow was punctuated by being conscripted to the army in 1947; he was in charge of a pathology department at the BM hospital in Kuala Lumpar during the communist uprising. His organisational skills allowed every soldier to be blood grouped and blood supplied for the casualties of frequent ambushes.

Tom Symington was born on 1 April 1915, the son of an Ayrshire miner in Muirkirk. His father died in the influenza epidemic of 1918 and he was brought up by his mother and Uncle Bob, who taught him the Olympian spirit of being strong in mind, spirit, and body. A talented school footballer, he was told by his headmaster that he should not be going to university but pursuing a career in professional football.

Following Robin's death and his return to Scotland, his drive and fundraising ability and Margaret's support soon led them into help establish a hospice for patients with cancer in Ayr. They travelled throughout Ayrshire lecturing to raise funds. He was very proud of the hospice and its achievements.

A passionate member of Royal Troon Golf Club, he was still playing off a handicap of 15 aged 87 years. He served on the Royal Troon committee and was made an honorary member in 1998. In 2003 he published his memoirs, A Chance to Remember—My Life in Medicine. His door was always open for advice, reflection, a round of golf with visiting academics, friends, and his much loved family.

He was predeceased by his wife in 2004 and is survived by his daughter, Esther; son, Alan; five grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.


Former professor of pathology Glasgow and director Chester Beatty Cancer Research Institute, London (b 1915; q Glasgow 1941; FRS(E), BSc (Hons), MD (Hons), FRFPS, FRCP, FRCPath), d 30 April 2007.

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