Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Britain is no longer a country for and said "Goodbye" to an old pioneer psychopharmacologist called Merton Sandler

Merton, who devoted his life to psychopharmacology, the scientific study of the effects drugs have on our mood, sensation, thinking and behaviour, died in August at the age of died at the age of 88.

What you possibly didn't know about Merton, that he :

* born in 1926 in Salford, near Manchester into an 'observant' Jewish family, went to North Grecian Street Primary School, Broughton and at the age of 11 in 1937, won a scholarship to the prestigious boys' independent school, Manchester Grammar where he was disadvantaged at the start of each Autumn term as he later recalled  : "it always coincided with the beginning of the Jewish holidays and I was faced with a statutory seven days of absence from school at the beginning when everything was fizzing, when everything happened."

* hated school with its discipline and organized sport, punished when he avoided it, but was a keen environmentalist, set to study agriculture, when : "at about the age of sixteen, I suddenly thought, I don’t know one end of a cow from another.  So, I looked around and medicine seemed rather interesting; so medicine it was" and had his choice reinforced by the masters who he found 'superior' and "seemed to despise us little boys. A lot of us had immigrant ancestors and all the masters had starred firsts at Oxford or Cambridge in Atomic Physics or Botany. What they had in common was that they all despised medicine. It was only fit for the thickies, so that’s how I became a doctor." 

* left school in 1944, the last year of the Second World War and started his medical degree at the University of Manchester and on graduation in 1949, held resident appointments in succession at Withington Hospital (right), Royal Manchester Children Hospital and Preston Royal Infirmary.

* at the age of 26 in 1952, started his two year National Service in the Royal Army Medical Corps, was promoted to the rank of captain and because he'd done a year of pathology training, was given a small hospital lab and few routine duties and with another doctor-soldier, Captain Michael Pare, did research on ‘Starvation Amino- Aciduria’ and the presence of amino acids in the urine, having starved themselves for three days in the process and approached the leader in the field, Charles Dent (left), which was given freely and had their paper published in the Lancet in 1954.

* left the Army and applied for a job to get to Manchester Medical School and was interviewed by a Committee and later recalled "with all the big wigs from the faculty sitting around the table and I remember particularly the Professor of Surgery, John Morley, a member of the interviewing committee and a well-known wag and he said, reading my CV over the top of his half-moon glasses, “There’s a curious lack of some crucial information here. We are not told, does he support City or United?” I must have given the wrong answer because after that I was banished to London in exile for sixty years. Well that’s showbiz."

 * left the Army and worked for two years as Resident Fellow in Clinical Pathology at the Brompton Hospital, famous 'chest' centre and recalled : "they had brand spanking new chromatography equipment lining the corridors and nobody knew how to work it. It was mouth-watering to see this stuff so I got it going for them." 

* made his first step in psychopharmacology with two friends and contemporaries, Alan Goble and David Hay (left), started to investigate the first case of carcinoid syndrome ever seen in Britain, was when asked if he "could do anything biologically? "said : "I’d have a go because the petals had started to unfold, the biochemical petals. I did a few chromatograms and we were very lucky; I got some nice data showing high concentrations of 5- hydroxytryptamine  in the right side of the heart compared with the left. I was fired-up by this finding and became a one-man carcinoid reference laboratory" and was " getting close to psychopharmacology" but hadn't " got there yet."

* worked with Michael Pare on '5-hydroxytryptamine', which the Americans called 'serotonin' and gave 6 volunteers LSD thinking that if they treated them with a 5-HT precursor, it might suppress the schizophrenia-like symptoms of LSD but "couldn’t carry on because the sixth volunteer was a disaster; he had a bad trip on LSD and had to be held down by half-a-dozen male nurses and tranquilized. He only came back to sanity after about six months, if he ever did. In those days there were no ethical committees to pronounce on our experimental design. They were a later addition."

* experimented on himself by taking drug 'reserpine' to test the theory that it lowered amine levels and caused depression
and later recalled : "It was one of the most miserable experiences in my whole life.  I was depressed, paranoid and aggressive for a month! I couldn’t breathe through my nose for a month. It really is a foul drug...We were crazy!  We all did this sort of things. It is a grand tradition trying out things on yourself.  It’s come to a halt now, thank God...Ethical committees didn’t exist then but we don’t do it now.  Paul Ehrlich tried everything on himself didn’t he? It was a grand tradition."

* at the age of 29 in 1955, started three years as Lecturer in Chemical Pathology at the Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine and in 1958 started his 33 year tenure as Consultant Chemical Pathologist at Queen Charlotte's Maternity Hospital (left) and the following year, at a time when most psychiatry was psychoanalytical, first suggested a link between depression and a deficiency in certain chemicals in the brain known as 'monoamines' and undertook research which led  to the development of modern-day anti-depressants.

* after finding that 60% of murderers in North Carolina had been on amphetamine, made the national press with his experiment at Wormwood Scrubs Prison, to test the effect of amphetamine on a group of aggressive psychopaths and another group of men imprisoned for white collar crimes, fraud, cooking the books, tax evasion-normal controls and confirmed that the psychopaths excreted significantly more 'phenethylamine metabolites' than controls. 

* built a reputation as an internationally renowned academic, one of the few scientists to maintain contact with the USSR during the Cold War, starting with a Biochemical Congress in Moscow in 1961 and in those days of Soviet anti-semitic persecution, used his contacts in the Russian scientific establishment to help Jewish neuroscientists by fostering research ties and promoting visits abroad, at that time forbidden to Jews and helping them leave the country, find work and settle in the West while facing down the Russian authorities and KGB.

* as Head of the Pathology laboratory in Queen Charlotte's, led a 20-strong team of researchers, a pioneer in biological psychiatry and a father figure in psychopharmacology and spent a third of his time travelling abroad to the USA, Europe, Israel, India, Japan and Australia, a celebrity on the brain biochemistry conference circuit, loved for his huge knowledge and intellect, rigorous and creative approach, sense of humour and hilarious, sometimes filthy, after-dinner speeches.

* produced seminal work on the chemical causes and treatment of a wide range of other conditions, including Parkinson's disease, alcoholism, migraine and schizophrenia,  published books :  ‘Nervous Laughter’, ‘Wine, the Scientific Explanation’ and the third was ‘Sexual Behaviour, Pharmacology and Biochemistry’ and in 1999 at the age of 73, was awarded a 'Lifetime Achievement Award' by the British Association for Psychopharmacology (right).

* was cajoled into becoming Senior Steward of the Manchester Grammar Schools Old Boys Association and later reflected : "the school that I thought I hated so much.  That’s the way cookies crumble" and told the Annual Dinner in 2012 at the age of 86 : "Well nowadays I have let up a bit and I spend most of my time reading detective novels and spy thrillers with just one or two uplifting books I can be seen to be reading when the grandchildren come round. You can pick up some good painless quotes in this way. Did you know that Umberto Eco in 'Foucault’s Pendulum' said 'For every complex problem there is a simple solution' and it’s wrong. James Thurber said, 'Mere proof won’t convince me', but the best advice that I know is : 'that when you are travelling down life’s highway and you come to a fork in the road take it'. That was said by one of the great philosophers of our time, Yogi Bear."

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