I first met Harry and Freda nearly 30 years ago at the Oxford Food Symposium. How come? Well, Freda was interested in food so they thought they would check it out. So typical of Harry’s wide ranging curiosty.
Over the following years I met Harry at various allergy conferences and, in due course, asked him to write some articles for Foods Matter – which he did. (Put Morrow Brown into the Search box on FoodsMatter and you will find articles on everything from potato allergy to ‘how a cough syrup can kill you on the operating table’.) However, it was not until after Freda died in 2011 that I finally went to visit him in Derby.
He lived in a rambling, double fronted early Victoria house in a leafy part of Derby which he and Freda had bought when they moved there in the early 1950s. The previous owner had sold off one side of the extensive garden for development, so, to get to Harry’s gates you drove through a peculiarly horrible low-rise post-war mini housing estate. The house itself is rather grand but, by the time I came to visit, the roots of the magnificent cedar which shaded the front porch had combined with its slightly elevated position to gradually pull the front part of the house away from the rest. So the main rooms were swathed in dustsheets pending the outcome of a protracted argument with the insurers over their subsidence claim. However, this did not affect Harry’s plethora of studies and workshops.
One, on the first floor, housed his main computer and his thousands of slides of eisinophils, sputum and the many hundreds of experiments he had carried out over 60 years of practice. One, on the ground floor, housed his extensive collection of microscopes, the most recent of which (a very high tech number complete with video camera ) he had bought only a few years ago for more thousands than he was prepared to reveal to me. And then, in the basement, was an Aladdin’s cave of a workshop, complete with workbenches, metal cutting tools, woodworking tools and innumerable ‘things’, most of which were in the process of either dis-or re-memberment!
For Harry belonged to the Leonardo da Vinci school of investigation – if you cannot find a tool to do what you want, invent one. A useful skill in the early days of allergy research when he developed, among many other devices, a wet smear method of searching for eisinophils, a spore trap to enable him to take regular pollen and spore counts, a way to use patients’ own housedust mite to test for allergy, portable air sampling devices, a standardised skin testing needle, a re-breathing bronchial provocation test and a microspoon to hold just the right amount of grass pollen for nasal provocation. Up until last year he was still studying the inorganic crystals which are found in the air in certain weather conditions.
Just a year ago he was asked to provide a CV to accompany a poster presentation at a conference in Italy. He took the opportunity to expand this into what he called a ‘pre-obituary’ which he sent me ‘for approval’ but, I think, in the secret hope that I would keep it and use it when the time came. This, obviously, I did – and it is now to be found on the Foodsmatter site here and it charts his professional life in much more detail. However, for the record here I quote a few paragraphs from his own site:
In 1993 I was awarded the Charles Blackley Lectureship by the British Society for Allergy and Clinical Immunology, in 1999 the William Frankland Medal for services to Clinical Allergy, and in 2004 I received an Honorary Doctorate from Derby University.
I belong to the British, American, and European Societies for Allergy and Clinical Immunology and still present new research at annual meetings. In 2006 I was elected as an International Fellow of the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology, being only the tenth British doctor thus honoured by the most prestigious Allergy Association in the world.
I continue in active clinical practice not only because I enjoy seeing patients and solving their problems, but because there are so few allergy specialists. It is a paradox that while Britain has the highest incidence of allergic disease in the world, it also has the most inadequate allergy service.
Harry did not believe in growing old – although when Freda, his much loved companion of over 60 years, died two years go, life held less appeal. However, while he was still here, he believed in still being here! Only eighteen months ago I met him at a conference in London and was very surprised to hear that he had driven down from Derby and was proposing to drive back again the same evening. When I asked why on earth he hadn’t taken the train, he said ‘because everyone told him that, at his age, he would not be able to drive down and back in the same day and he wanted to prove them wrong.’ His greatest annoyances in his latter years were that he could not make any of his hearing aids work well enough for him to be able to hear the speakers at allergy conferences – and that he was so old that all referring bodies thought that he was either dead or ga-ga so no longer referred patients to him!
However, that did not stop him. Since so few patients now came to him, he would go to them. So, over the last ten years, he built his own website, www.allergiesexplained.com, which, as he said, ‘enabled me to preserve over half a century of research and clinical experience for the benefit of allergy victims, and make it accessible to colleagues with a major interest in the allergy epidemic.’
And it is indeed a fantastic resource with extraordinary case studies of the mental and psychological effects of allergens, hidden food allergy, multiple allergies, nightshade allergies, allergies to animals not to mention a long section on ‘finding answers’ – SLIT (sub-lingual immunotherapy), densitisation, dietary manipulation, the use of Acarosan. And all illustrated with hundreds of photos of patients charting the course of their allergies.
(Each time I visited him in Derby over the last few years, after a pleasant lunch somewhere in town, we would end up back at his computer while he gave me a slide show of case histories and his microscopic investigation of house dust mites, eisinophils, inorganic crystals and sputum many of which, quite apart from their medical interest, were quite beautiful!)
Meanwhile, he continued to campaign – against meta research analyses which suggested that it was a waste of time reducing the numbers of dustmites in the home, in favour of desensitisation, against diagnoses of ‘idiopathic allergy’, on the hidden danger of the cough medicine pholcodine – and, when they came to him, to advise patients. Even during the very last week of his life, while he was in hospital, he received an email from an allergy sufferer in New York who had been on his website, and asked me to reply to her, making various helpful suggestions, on his behalf.
Sadly, although his website will remain as an active testament to his work, we will have lost the delightfully irascible Harry himself. (How often has a telephone conversation revolved around the latest ‘bloody nonsense’ he had unearthed.) And allergy sufferers will have lost access to an ever enquiring mind and a sympathetic and open-minded listener. Despite his enthusiasm for microscopy, Harry always saw his patients as people in the context of their families and their circumstances – so often the key to their allergic problems as so many of the case histories on his website show. ‘No one these days pays enough attention to the patient’s history. No matter how many tests you do, you will never get to the root of more complex problems without careful consideration of the patient’s history.’ A fitting epitaph.
Dr Harry Morrow Brown. Born in Auchterarder, Scotland in 1917; died 22nd August 2013 in Derby.
There will be a celebration of Harry’s life and work, with light refreshments, from 4pm on Tuesday September 3rd at the Hallmark Hotel, Midland Road, Derby opposite Derby station.