BSI Honorary Member

Delphine Parrott


Over the course of her career Delphine Parrott has made outstanding contributions, both to Immunology, and to the BSI. She joined the BSI in 1958, and was a committee member from 1971–73; Chairperson from 1972–73; International Secretary from 1973–79; and also International Union of Immunological Societies (IUIS) representative from 1974–80.

I first met Delphine in 1973, having commenced my PhD in the Department of Bacteriology and Immunology in Glasgow with Delphine’s own recently graduated PhD, Anne Ferguson. After Anne left to become a Senior Lecturer in Edinburgh in 1974, Delphine took over my supervision. To the PhD students, Delphine was fearsome, very candid and intellectually formidable – and I was terrified of her (and still am a bit)! Of course she is not really fearsome at all, but on the contrary, warm and generous; and her advice has helped me, and many colleagues, over the years.

Delphine is a native of Dulwich in South London, and she graduated in 1949, with an honours degree in Physiology from Bedford College, University of London, which at that time was situated in the middle of Regents Park. She undertook her PhD at King’s College Hospital Medical School, graduating in 1952. At that time she was an endocrinologist (Immunology was not yet an independent discipline), so she spent two years in the MRC Clinical Endocrinology Unit in Edinburgh, before returning in 1954 to become a staff member at the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) in Mill Hill. With Sir Alan Parkes, who had hired her because of her skill in working with small animals, Delphine worked on the restoration of fertility in irradiated mice, using orthotopic ovarian grafts. Grafting, of course, means rejection, so she had to sneak away to the Department of Zoology at University College to see Peter Medawar and Leslie Brent in order to learn about transplant rejection – especially since Parkes and Medawar did not get on! She published many papers in endocrine and fertility journals during this time, but in 1960, together with co-author Hilda Brace, she was rewarded with the publication of a landmark paper in Science. They had been working on an interesting problem relating to why female pregnant mice abort when a new male is placed in the cage, and her skills in small animal surgery allowed her to dissect out the olfactory bulb from the females and demonstrate that this abolished the effect.

In 1960, she moved to the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (ICRF) in Mill Hill, together with her technician and, showing the collegiality and mentoring skills common in the 1960s, Sir Alan Parkes cancelled her leaving party and gave her gifts back to her friends – for ‘stealing’ a technician! At ICRF she was working on AKR mice, who develop massive thymomas, and one of her experiments was to determine the effect of removing the thymus. Again Delphine’s skills in surgery came to the fore and she worked out a method to thymectomise neonatal mice. While it did not alter the development of cancer, the animals were profoundly immune-suppressed. This led to a paper in Nature on the role of the thymus in neonatal life, which appeared only a few months after Jacques Miller’s paper in the Lancet on the immunological role of the thymus.

Her research took another change of direction when, in 1964, she was joined by Maria de Sousa, a Gulbenkian scholar from Portugal. Maria was a histopathologist, and when she looked at the lymph nodes of adult mice thymectomised at birth, she noticed areas which were lacking cells. Delphine and Maria christened those areas ‘thymus-dependent areas’, and published their findings, both in Nature and the Journal of Experimental Medicine, in 1966.

In 1967 she moved to Glasgow University to become a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Bacteriology and Immunology, headed by Professor Bob White. Then in 1968, whilst teaching at a BSI Summer School, she convinced Anne Ferguson, one of the attendees, and then a 25 year-old gastroenterology registrar, to become a lecturer in Immunology, and also start a PhD on intraepithelial lymyphocytes with her. (Interestingly, Anne had gone to Glasgow to do Medicine, at the age of 16, and was the gold medallist as the best student in her final year!) Anne had also noticed that the gut histology of Delphine’s thymectomised mice, suffering from a wasting disease, resembled coeliac disease. At that time this was known to be caused by wheat gluten, but was not understood immunologically. Anne and Delphine were the first to suggest that T cells could cause villus atrophy and were important in gut disease – based largely on the fact that after the implantation of foetal intestinal allografts under the kidney capsule of mice, the rejection process resulted in the mucosa altering its shape and becoming ‘flat’.

In 1973 Delphine was given a personal chair at Glasgow, the first woman Professor at the university, and in 1974 was made a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. She had also begun work on lymphocyte recirculation, at first with Maria de Sousa, then Antonio de Freitas, and later Cliff Ottaway. She also continued to publish, reporting in Nature that small lymphocyte migration was random; and also did seminal work on the control of immunoblast homing to skin and gut. Then, in 1980, she reported results on mouse intraepithelial lymphocytes, drawn from work she was doing with Spedding Micklem in Edinburgh, who was then at the forefront of the new technology of flow cytometry. She and her colleagues identified cells that were Lyt2+, Lyt3-, yet when she presented the results in New York at the Mucosal Immunology Conference, she was not believed. She had, of course, identified thymus-independent CD8αα T cells, but such was the resistance to the idea that the work was rejected by Nature, and only published in the conference proceedings!

The year 1980 also saw other major changes also in Delphine’s life when, with two-days notice, Bob White suddenly retired, and she was made both Head of Department and Gardiner Professor – a position she occupied, with distinction, until 1990, when she retired, and passed the responsibility to Eddie Lieu. During this ten-year period, she helped many young trainees with their work, whilst putting her own research on the back-burner. After retirement, she moved back to Mill Hill, where she enjoys gardening, and takes evening classes in increasingly exotic topics.

Although teaching was not necessarily always at the forefront of her duties, it is here, paradoxically, that her contribution equals that of her excellent science. In the late-1970s Delphine and Bob White had negotiated patiently with the science faculty in Glasgow regarding the setting-up of a BSc. devoted to Immunology; to be the first of its kind in the country. They eventually succeeded, partly by including contributions from Biochemistry, Microbiology and Virology. However, with Bob White’s departure, Delphine had to take up the reins of running the BSc. course as well as the department. This course has produced many excellent Immunologists, who now occupy senior positions in industry and academia – and largely accounts for the Scottish Immunology ‘Mafia’! As someone who passed through Glasgow before the BSc., this sense of heritage is very strong: Delphine taught Anne Ferguson, who in turn taught Alan Mowat and myself, and our students now have their own students, working on gut immunology. Delphine herself says that she was very surprised to be made a Professor and Head of Department, since all she really wanted to do was research. It is fortunate that she just happened to be brilliant at her chosen career!

Delphine has uttered many memorable things that I remember, but one that particularly sticks in the mind is her insistence that scientists need time for reflection and thinking. In the frantic rush to get grants, papers, and be returnable in the Research Assessment Exercise, it is worth remembering that there is no substitute for a good idea, and Delphine has had lots of them.

Thomas T. MacDonald, Institute of Cell and Molecular Science, Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, London

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