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Maegraith, Brian Gilmore (1907–1989)

by Anthony Radford

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Brian Gilmore Maegraith (1907-1989), medical scientist, was born on 26 August 1907 at Prospect, Adelaide, youngest of five children of Alfred Edward Maegraith, schoolmaster and later auditor, and his wife Louisa Blanche, née Gilmore.  The family pronounced its surname 'M’Graith'.  Brian was educated at the Collegiate School of St Peter, where he was an excellent student and a fine sportsman, and at St Mark’s College, University of Adelaide (MB, BS, 1930).  Interested in Aborigines as a 'dying primitive race', in university vacations he assisted anthropologists, including (Sir) John Cleland and H. K. Fry, with their field-work.   After graduating with first-class honours, he won a Rhodes scholarship in 1931 and entered Magdalen College, Oxford (B.Sc., 1933; D.Phil., 1934; MA, 1935).  On 18 June 1934 at St Cross parish church, Oxford, he married Lorna Elsie Langley, also from South Australia.

At Oxford Maegraith was a Beit fellow (1933), Staines medical fellow and tutor in physiology at Exeter College (1934-40), lecturer and demonstrator in pathology (1937-44) and dean of the faculty of medicine (1938-44).  He worked with Howard (Lord) Florey and developed outstanding skills as an experimental pathologist.  Commissioned in the Royal Army Medical Corps, Territorial Army, in 1933, he served in France (1940), swimming out to a waiting vessel during the evacuation from Dunkirk.  He was assistant-director of pathology (1942-43), West Africa Command, before returning to England where he headed (1943-45) the Malaria Research Unit as a temporary lieutenant colonel.

In 1944 Maegraith was appointed to the chair of tropical medicine, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, becoming dean in 1946.  He published a review of the research literature on malaria, Pathological Processes in Malaria and Blackwater Fever (1948), and extended his patho-physiological studies from the causes of renal failure in malaria patients to the general effects of stress and infection.  With A. R. D. Adams he worked on the effectiveness of anti-malarial drugs and developed paludrine; he also undertook research on blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, snake bite, typhus fever and meningitis.  He and Adams wrote Clinical Tropical Diseases (1953), and Tropical Medicine for Nurses (1955).  Other monographs followed, including (with C. S. Leithead) Clinical Methods in Tropical Medicine (1962), Exotic Diseases in Practice (1965), and Exotic Diseases in Europe (1965).  Credited with building up the Liverpool school from a respected small institution to a world-renowned organisation, he was elected a fellow of the Royal colleges of Physicians of London and of Edinburgh (1955), and of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (1970).

Maegraith held numerous consultancies with the World Health Organization, foreign governments, industry and academic institutions, throughout the tropical world.  An internationalist, he believed that 'our impact on the tropics must be in the tropics'.  He helped to establish an institute for tropical medicine in Ghana and a faculty of tropical medicine at Mahidol University, Bangkok, and to develop medical schools in Ghana and Sierra Leone.  In a paper published in the Lancet in 1963, foreseeing the expansion of air travel, he drew attention to the increased threat that would be posed by imported diseases and advocated that doctors take routine 'geographical histories' of patients.  He was a founder (1964) of the Conference (Council) of the European Schools and Institutes of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene and permanent vice-president of the interim committee of the International Congresses of Tropical Medicine and Malaria.  His Heath Clark lectures, delivered in 1970, were published as One World in 1973.

A visionary and a pioneer in the field of tropical medicine, Maegraith was appointed CMG in 1968.  He was president (1969-71) of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, which had presented him with its Chalmers medal in 1951.  Retiring from the chair of tropical medicine in 1972, he was made professor emeritus; he continued as dean until 1975.  The Liverpool school awarded him the Mary Kingsley medal in 1973 and opened its Maegraith wing in 1978.  Mahidol University had conferred on him an honorary D.Sc. in 1966, and in 1982 he was admitted to the Order of the White Elephant, Thailand.

Maegraith was a large, handsome man, bald of pate.  Although he did not suffer fools gladly, he was a personable character.  In his spare time he painted and taught himself the piano; he also wrote poetry and short stories.  Survived by his wife and their son, he died on 2 April 1989 at Liverpool.

Select Bibliography

  • Roll of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, vol 2, 1976-1990, 1994
  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004
  • Lancet, 29 April 1989, p 970
  • Times (London), 5 April 1989, p 16
  • Independent (London), 6 April 1989, p 18
  • private information

Citation details

Anthony Radford, 'Maegraith, Brian Gilmore (1907–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/maegraith-brian-gilmore-14756/text25921, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 18 August 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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