Authorised form of nameBangham; Alec Douglas (1921 - 2010)
ForenamesAlec Douglas
Dates1921 - 2010
Dates and placesBirth:
Manchester, England (10 November 1921)
9 March 2010
ActivityHaematologist - father of liposomes
His early schooling at the Downs Quaker preparatory school, Colwall, Worcestershire, overlapped with the future twice-Nobel laureate Fred Sanger. He was taught English in his final two years by WH Auden. Alec left Downs with barely the common entrance marks to get into Bryanston school, Blandford, Dorset. The story of his early academic career, however, did not presage the highly original and insightful research scientist who was to emerge. At school, Alec abandoned Latin as a lost cause, which excluded him from Oxbridge. At the outbreak of the second world war, he was not eligible for call-up, so, having read Microbe Hunters by Paul de Kruif, he decided to do medicine. He repeated French three times to gain access to London University, and failed his final MB MS (medicine) twice before emerging successfully from UCL.

In 1952 he was one of the first to be appointed to the new Institute of Animal Physiology, Babraham, Cambridge, where he was a staff scientist for 30 years. Early research reflected the catholicity of his approach, driven by curiosity. He studied carriers of typhoid among Egyptians, the effect of cortisone on wound healing, and found that horses exhibited two types of haemoglobins. He tackled the surface chemistry of blood cells and found that pure phospholipids dispersed in water consisted of sets of closed membranes that were structurally and functionally like real cell membranes. He (and the world) called them liposomes, even if some affectionately prefer "Bangasomes". From this discovery in the 1960s, a new industry was to emerge.

His fascination with the basic physics of how molecules permeate across membranes extended to the fusion and stickiness of membranes, blood clotting, anaesthetics and vitamin A intoxication. In contrast to many of today's set-ups, Alec always had a small laboratory of never more than two or three devoted staff. It received a stream of visiting scientists from all parts of the world, who became part of the extended family with Alec and his wife, Rosalind, at the centre. The impact of his work has been far-reaching, with tens of thousands of scientific papers, a succession of patents, a new journal, an international society, a profusion of conferences and the creation of companies.

Excited when industry began to catch up with his ideas, Alec followed closely how liposomes could be used to treat chronic human diseases, whether it was cancer, fungal and mycoplasma infections or vascular disease. They could be used stealthily, like a Trojan horse, to deliver toxic drugs to their targets, as adjuvants for immunisation, and to deliver healthy genes where they were needed. He flew with Rosalind to Paris for dinner with Jacques Rouet, president of Christian Dior, to see liposomes being made by the kilogram. These little fatty vesicles became valuable in the cosmetics not only of Christian Dior but also Lancôme, Arden and numerous other companies.

Alec was deeply aware that scientists in research institutes were envied by their peers in universities because many had permanent appointments, technical assistants and freedom to follow their curiosities. Yet he recognised the deprivations institutes imposed on scientists, who, for instance, missed out on the feedback generated by teaching. They were also forced to retire at the age of 61, an arrangement enforced by civil service rules that gave greater importance to age than creativity.

As was to be expected, though, Alec found ways around this, and with Colin Morley at Addenbrooke's hospital, Cambridge, discovered that solid, rather than liquid, lung surfactant prevented lung tissue from filling up with fluid. A successful treatment for babies suffering from respiratory distress syndrome was developed, and artificial lung expanding compound, or "Alec", was launched, this time by a UK company. This new treatment gave great cause for rejoicing.

Photography was an enduring passion with Alec, and Auden paid him five cigarettes for taking a photograph of him with his wife of the day, Erika Mann, daughter of Thomas Mann, whom Auden had married so she could leave Germany. The school permitted Alec to visit his parents in Egypt, where his father was professor of physical chemistry in Cairo University. There, he photographed Jack Gaddum, who had been appointed by Alec's father to the chair of pharmacology and later became director of Babraham.

His first appointment was at Addenbrooke's hospital, followed by national service as a pathologist, becoming a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1948. Postings to Palestine and Fayid, Egypt, exposed him to the depressing task of carrying out postmortems on soldiers killed in action. Rosalind, who had qualified in medicine from King's College, London, joined him to live outside married quarters in a mud hut. With Colonel John Hunt (of Everest fame), expeditions to the mountains of the western desert were irresistible. In his autobiography, Hunt recalled these expeditions and with obvious affection, wrote of this "delightfully unconventional pair" – the Banghams on an ageing motorbike and sidecar and the Hunts in a dilapidated pre-war Standard 9.

Alec was devoted to his family and addicted to sailing, cricket (he was a notable batsman in his day), photography, restoring Caucasian rugs, cars, scooters, making facsimiles of classical clarinet mouthpieces, and growing the largest vegetables in the locality.

At the end of his life he was still bursting with ideas and still publishing. His latest hypothesis was that a person's bouquet of weak volatile organic compounds serves two purposes. In their uncharged state, they are permeable and smell and collectively identify an individual. When charged, they bond and make surfaces charge-free and invisible – fit to avoid rejection. It was a surreal moment when he gathered a small group of friends and colleagues to tell them all about this on the evening before he died.

Medals and awards; Alec was awarded a doctorate of medicine from London University (1965), and of University College London (1981), and made a distinguished fellow of the Royal College of Physicians (1997).
Royal Society activityMembership:
Election Date:
RelationshipsThe son of Donald Bangham, director of research at the British Coal Utilisation Research Association, and Edith Kerby, who was born in St Petersburg and had been a one-time interpreter for Emmeline Pankhurst, Alec was the eldest of three children. Married, his wife predeceased him by a few months. He leaves three sons and a daughter.
Published worksThe landmark paper in which he had first described liposomes, with Malcolm Standish and Jeff Watkins, which was published in 1965, was recognised as a citation classic in Current Contents in 1989.
Biographical Memoirs of the Royal Society, Vol 57, 2011, pp 25-44, plate, by Sir Brian Heap CBE FRS and Gregory Gregoriadis
Brian Heap, in 'The Guardian' 31 March 2010
Chris Havergal i 'Cambridge News' 13/03/2010
Jef Akst in 'The Scientist' 2/04/2010
Virtual International Authority File
Royal Society codeNA4663
Archives associated with this Fellow
Reference numberTitleDate
EC/1977/04Bangham, Alec Douglas: certificate of election to the Royal Society1972
P/0214Portrait of Bangham, Alec Douglas1985
P/0250Portrait of Bangham, Alec Douglas1985
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