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Tribute to Basil Reeve: 1912-2015

The Faculty of Life Sciences & Medicine was saddened to hear news of former colleague Basil Reeve, who passed away in September aged 103. His son, Jonathan Reeve has written the compelling story of his father's life:


L-R: Basil pictured in 1932, 1945 and in the 1980's

Basil Reeve, Physician and Researcher Who Saved Many Lives on the Battlefield in WW2 through his Researches and was a Friend of Benjamin Britten and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

(Ernest) Basil Reeve, as a young UK Medical Research Council investigator, made contributions of global importance to the reduction of war deaths by showing that the wounded were being severely under-transfused according to guidelines developed in previous conflicts. With adequate transfusion, about half of deaths attributed to 'wound shock' could be prevented.  Subsequently, he advanced scientific understanding of how the body controls bleeding.

Basil was conceived in Japan of missionary parents and was born in Everton, near Liverpool 25 days after the Titanic sank. He was the eldest of four boys, his next brother being Eric Reeve (died December 2011) the well-known Edinburgh geneticist. On moving to the fishing port of Lowestoft in Eastern England, when his father became vicar of St John’s, Mrs Britten, Benjamin’s mother, joined the Mothers’ Union. So Basil aged 11 and Benjamin Britten became friends and piano four-hands partners, as recounted in Britten’s published diaries and letters. Britten, as became his pattern, was demanding the almost impossible because Basil’s father could only afford 3 months’ lessons with Miss Astle, Britten’s piano teacher. Basil’s interest in music was tempered by realising that try as he might he could not match Ben’s exceptional musicality or for that matter Christopher Gledhill’s, the son of the vicar of nearby Beccles, who later had a distinguished musical career in Canada. A top county history scholarship to Oriel College Oxford (luckily awarded days before he, as head boy, was expelled from Norwich Grammar School for organizing a gentle humiliation with strawberry jam of an overbearing master) opened the way to a knight’s move and a medical career. His summer vacation in Hitler’s Germany impressed him with the likely inevitability of war and fuelled discussions recorded by Britten about pacifism – Basil later said if he had not been a doctor he too would have been a conscientious objector. This friendship flourished throughout Basil’s love affair with a glamorous white Russian female undergraduate at Oxford, but not beyond.

Basil’s medical career was begun as the future Lord Brock’s house surgeon (Russell Brock was the leading British thoracic surgeon of his day and onetime Rockefeller Travelling Fellow in Evarts Graham’s department in St. Louis, Missouri).  It nearly did not happen, because his scholarship prescribed history not medicine. Between them, his future wife Sheila (the girl in the Bloomsbury apartment downstairs) and the Dean of Guy’s Medical School ensured he was fed. He was not to follow Brock into surgery, only to enhance the discipline’s possibilities: Brock, a notably hard taskmaster who liked Basil, found himself time and again saying 'Reeve: you have supplied me with reams of accurate data, none of which is of any use to me'.  Subsequent 'reams of data' were later mined to impressive practical effect in the Special Report he and Ronald Grant published for the Medical Research Council after the war. Norman Veall, a later colleague, admired his laboratory pipetting of previously unheard-of accuracy, which with new methodology led to a large-scale revision of the scale of blood loss in war casualties. These advances enabled Basil’s young generation of service medics to double the survival of the wounded in World War 2 compared to WW1.

In the first week of Britain’s war with Hitler’s Germany, like countless other couples, he and Sheila married, thinking they would be gassed inside a month. Instead, he did first General Practice work around London Bridge as the Dunquerque evacuation delayed his Army call up and then joined Grant’s MRC research unit at Guy’s Hospital. The London Blitz was now on and their lab was immediately destroyed by a direct hit: uncharacteristically they had lingered one evening in the hospital dining room. This lucky escape encouraged them towards patient-based research and ensured their importance for the war effort: there were then many cases of blood loss and wound shock and urgent means were sought to save them. As the air-war was won over London, they moved to Newcastle and were joined by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, whom Basil had befriended in the Guy’s dining room as he became tired of pharmacy portering.  So Wittgenstein accepted a vacancy as Basil’s technician, as recounted by Ray Monk and in Brigit Barlow’s autobiography. Wittgenstein 'took Basil over' on their weekly walks on the Northumberland moors but refused to discuss philosophy, telling Basil he was too stupid to understand it; but Wittgenstein’s Viennese musical tastes, Tolstoyan approach to living and his intense commitment to working until mentally exhausted left a profound impression. Especially influential for the rest of Basil’s scientific career was Wittgenstein’s search for the essential simplicity in complexity. Together they came up with simple rules of thumb for assessing transfusion needs for use by paramedics on the battlefield, validated with Basil’s careful measurements of blood volume. Later, at last in the army at a 'MASH'-type facility at Monte Cassino, where the rocky terrain was hostile to digging trenches, many soldiers were wounded in the abdomen. The unthinking Royal Army Medical Corps policy of replacing with sugar-water the salty fluids that had to be routinely sucked out of the stomach led to a temporary recovery followed by decline, delirium and death on the seventh day (the Americans were doing very slightly better, but not much). As the only battlefield doctors with a mobile laboratory, Reeve and Grant observed, as their medical colleagues elsewhere could not, the disastrous fall in blood chloride preceding inevitable death.  Basil saved his first such patient by injecting a strong sodium chloride solution made up by mixing the mess salt ration with drinking water.

The war’s end saw Basil in high demand as a lecturer and initiator of the embryonic field of intensive care; but he was a controversial figure at Guy’s because his research had debunked some cherished medical myths fostered by Willie Mann and other Guy’s  Hospital notables. His marriage disintegrated in 1952 and declining a chair in Belfast, he emigrated to Denver Colorado. His research thereafter concerned the proteins of the blood and their regulation. This led to the study of blood clotting: one of the most complex problems in protein research. He went on to immerse himself in mathematics, following his brother Eric’s lead, so that he could write equations to describe clotting reactions in quantitative detail both inside the blood vessel and on its damaged surface. In this he was a pioneer of a completely new field in quantitative biology.

In 1953 Basil married the pianist, teacher and composer Jeanne Schenck but they separated in 1974 and in 1984 he married Dorothy At’lee Walker, an American relative of the British Prime Minister. Her subsequent illness led him to withdraw from research on his 84th birthday, feeling no more than Wittgenstein that he had fulfilled his intellectual ambitions. Two years after Dorothy’s death, Jeanne and Basil were reconciled and they celebrated their centenaries together.

Ernest Basil Gladden Reeve, 1912-2015