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Rupert E. Billingham dies

Founding father of organ transplantation dies, aged 81.

By | December 6, 2002

Rupert Everett Billingham, a scientist considered by many to have founded the fields of reproductive immunology and organ transplantation, died in Boston, Massachusetts, on 16 November from complications of Parkinson's disease. He was 81 years old.

Billingham was born in Wiltshire, England, the son of a fish merchant and the grandson of a dairy farmer, which he regarded as a fortunate qualification given his later experiments involving cows.

During the Second World War, Billingham served a four-year stint on a Navy anti-submarine escort. His naturalist tendencies surfaced even then, by his own account, when he was "summoned to the bridge," and "verbally torn apart" after dissecting a washed-up fish on his Captain's desk. (Billingham RE, "Reminiscences of a 'transplanter,'" Transplant Proceedings, 1974).

After the war, Billingham returned to the University of Oxford to complete his graduate studies under the supervision of Peter Medawar. In 1947, Medawar moved from Oxford to the University of Birmingham. Billingham moved with him, a decision that may have been influenced by his wish to follow Medawar's attractive technician, Jean Morpeth, whom he later married.

At the University of Birmingham, Medawar and Billingham predicted that identical cattle twins would accept exchanged grafts and fraternal twins would not. In contrast to their expectations, however, both types of twins accepted the grafts. Medawar and Billingham speculated that the persistence of foreign blood cells due to placental fusion of fraternal twins in cattle, but not humans, was the probable explanation. They were later proved right.

Billingham, by then a junior faculty member in Medawar's laboratory at University College London, together with graduate student Leslie Brent, continued the cattle experiments in mice. They inoculated prenatal or neonatal mice with lymphoid cells from adult donor mice then transplanted skin grafts from the donor mice to the inoculated mice.

The grafts survived permanently, providing the first clear evidence that organ transplantation was possible. The 1953 publication of this work in Nature, is still considered by many to be the single most important publication in the field of transplantation.

As a credit to Billingham's involvement, when Medawar was awarded the 1960 Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine for discovery of acquired immunological tolerance, he shared the prize money with his former student.

These events, which took place relatively early in Billingham's career, sparked a lifelong interest in the process of lymphoid development and transplantation. After 1957, Billingham continued his work at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was chair of the department of medical genetics from 1965 to 1971. In 1971, he moved to the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, where he chaired the department of cell biology and anatomy until he retired in 1986.

Two of Billingham's colleagues at UT Southwestern, Richard Anderson, and Judith Head, remember Billingham not only as an accomplished scientist, but also an easy-going man, with a knack for telling stories, an inquisitive nature, and a dry British sense of humor.

"Billingham was a master at the art of presentation," said Head, who earned her doctorate under Billingham. "He once gave a talk at an international conference in 1985 that was so entertaining, that I still run into people who bring it up," she told The Scientist.

Billingham continued to do outstanding work after he left Medawar, according to Anderson, who now holds Billingham's former position as department chair.

"What distinguished Billingham from Medawar," said Anderson, "was that many of his later discoveries helped found the field of reproductive immunology." Anderson believes the field simply didn't exist before Billingham's research on how maternal-fetal reactions take place, "and he really made many contributions."

Billingham is survived by his wife of 54 years, Jean, and their three children John, Peter, and Elizabeth.

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