Dr. Delphine Parrott

Professor Delphine Mary Vera Parrott 1929-2016

Delphine Parrott passed away peacefully at home in London on January 17, 2016. Over the course of her career she made many outstanding contributions to immunology.

Delphine was a native of Dulwich in South London, and she graduated in 1949 with an honours degree in Physiology from Bedford College, University of London. She undertook her PhD at King’s College Hospital Medical School, graduating in 1952. At that time she was an endocrinologist (immunology was not yet an independent discipline), so she spent two years in the MRC Clinical Endocrinology Unit in Edinburgh, before returning in 1954 to become a staff member at the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) in Mill Hill, London. With Sir Alan Parkes, who had hired her because of her skill in working with small animals, Delphine worked on the restoration of fertility in irradiated mice, using orthotopic ovarian grafts. Grafting, of course, means rejection, so she had to sneak away to the Department of Zoology at University College to see Peter Medawar ( Nobel laureate 1960) in order to learn about transplant rejection. She published many papers in endocrine and fertility journals during this time, but in 1960, together with co-author Hilda Brace, she was rewarded with the publication of a landmark paper in Science. They had been working on an interesting problem relating to why female pregnant mice abort when a new male is placed in the cage, and her skills in small animal surgery allowed her to dissect out the olfactory bulb from the females and demonstrate that this abolished the effect.

In 1960, she moved to the Imperial Cancer Research Fund ( ICRF) in Mill Hill. At ICRF she was working on AKR mice, who develop massive thymomas, and one of her experiments was to determine the effect of removing the thymus. Again Delphine’s skills in surgery came to the fore and she worked out a method to thymectomise neonatal mice. The animals were profoundly immune-suppressed. This led to a paper in Nature on the role of the thymus in neonatal life, which appeared only a few months after Jacques Miller’s paper in the Lancet on the immunological role of the thymus.

Her research took another change of direction when, in 1964, she was joined by Maria de Sousa, a Gulbenkian scholar from Portugal. Maria was a histopathologist, and when she looked at the lymph nodes of adult mice thymectomised at birth, she noticed areas which were lacking cells. Delphine and Maria christened those areas ‘thymus-dependent areas’, and published their findings, both in Nature and the Journal of Experimental Medicine, in 1966.

In 1967 she moved to Glasgow University to become a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Bacteriology and Immunology. In 1973 Delphine was given a personal chair at Glasgow, the first woman Professor at the university in its then 432nd year, and in 1974 was made a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. She had also begun work on lymphocyte recirculation, at first with Maria de Sousa, then Antonio de Freitas and Marlene Rose, and later Cliff Ottaway. She also continued to publish, reporting in Nature that small lymphocyte migration was random; and also did seminal work on the control of immunoblast homing to skin and gut. She also published extensively on oral tolerance with Alan Mowat. Then, in 1980, she reported results on mouse intraepithelial lymphocytes, drawn from work she was doing with Spedding Micklem in Edinburgh, who was then at the forefront of the new technology of flow cytometry. She and her colleagues identified IEL that were Lyt2+, Lyt3-, yet when she presented the results in New York at the Mucosal Immunology Conference, she was not believed. She had, of course, identified thymus-independent CD8αα T cells, but such was the resistance to the idea that the work was rejected by Nature, and only published in the conference proceedings!

The year 1980 also saw other major changes in Delphine’s life when, with two-days notice, the incumbent professor suddenly retired, and she was made both Head of Department and Gardiner Professor – a position she occupied, with distinction, until 1990, when she retired, and passed the responsibility to Eddie Lieu. During this ten-year period, she helped many young trainees with their work, whilst putting her own research on the back-burner. After retirement, she moved back to Mill Hill, where she enjoyed her garden and allotment and her extensive network of friends.

Although teaching was not necessarily always at the forefront of her duties, it is here, paradoxically, that her contribution equals that of her excellent science. In the late-1970s Delphine and others had negotiated patiently with the science faculty in Glasgow regarding the setting-up of a BSc devoted to Immunology; the first of its kind in the UK. They eventually succeeded. This course has produced many excellent immunologists, who now occupy senior positions in industry and academia – and largely accounts for the Scottish Immunology ‘Mafia’!

Delphine has uttered many memorable things that I remember, but one that particularly sticks in the mind is her insistence that scientists need time for reflection and thinking. In the frantic rush to get grants and papers, it is worth remembering that there is no substitute for a good idea, and Delphine has had lots of them. She was very much admired and loved by everyone and she will be sorely missed.

Thomas T. MacDonald, Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, London
January 2016