Sir David Weatherall, 77, an Oxford researcher-physician, was among the first to use the tools of molecular biology to understand thalassemia. He was in New York to receive the Lasker-Koshland Special Achievement Award for “50 years of international statesmanship in biomedical science.” A condensed version of conversations with him follows:
A. In 1956, after I’d finished my medical training, I was drafted for compulsory military service. At the time, there was an insurgency in Malaya, where the Commonwealth forces were fighting the Communists, and I was not anxious to get involved with that. Nonetheless, I soon found myself on a troop ship for Singapore.
When I got there, because I had no pediatric training, the army put me in charge of a children’s ward looking after the families of Commonwealth soldiers. And there I encountered a 2-year-old, the daughter of a Gurkha from Nepal. She had profound anemia. No one understood why. We kept her alive with transfusions.
So in my spare moments, I went to the biochemistry department at Singapore University Hospital, and worked with people there to try to figure it out. Within six months, we had an answer: thalassemia. That was a big surprise. This genetic disease was thought to occur only in the Mediterranean.
Q. WHAT EXACTLY IS IT?
A. It’s a defect in the genes that makes it impossible for hemoglobin to properly form. Of course, in the 1950s, we understood little about hemoglobin’s biochemistry. Thalassemia was, and is, a terrible disease. The children generally don’t live to adulthood — and then only with constant transfusions. In the case of this little girl, her parents eventually took her to their village in Nepal, where she died.
Q. SO SHE WAS THE BEGINNING OF YOUR INTEREST?
A. Yes. The army next sent me up to northern Malaya, where the last of the fighting was going on. I used this time to search for more thalassemia. I’d construct equipment from old car batteries and filter paper, and that’s how I separated the different hemoglobins in the blood samples I’d collect. Whenever I found anything abnormal, I’d post the slides to a good old boy, Herman Lehman, at a laboratory in London. We actually found one or two more cases that way.