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Biographical entry Scarff, Robert Wilfred (1899 - 1970)

CBE 1960; MRCS 1924; FRCS by election 1958; LRCP 1924.

18 October 1899
19 January 1970


Born on 18 October 1899 at Dalmuir, near Glasgow into a seafaring family, Robert Scarff moved to London at the age of six when his father obtained a post ashore at Tilbury. Robert was educated at the City of London School and the Middlesex Hospital and he qualified with the Conjoint Diploma in 1924, medicine being an obvious choice when four of his uncles and a brother were also medically qualified. On qualification, he went straight into the Bland-Sutton Institute of Pathology at the Middlesex Hospital and spent the rest of his professional life there, ending up as its director.

His early researches were concerned with the histology of virus infection of the nervous system and the experimental production of atheroma and it soon became clear that he had a special flair for histology. He was appointed a reader in pathology in the University in 1931 and became head of the morbid anatomy and histology department. In 1935 he was appointed secretary to the Scientific Advisory Committee of the British Empire Cancer Campaign and this initiated a life-long interest in the campaign in which he held high office and exercised great influence.

He was made Professor of Pathology in 1946 and, on the death of James McIntosh in 1948, became director of the Bland-Sutton Institute. He was also elected treasurer of the Pathological Society and had a great and beneficial influence in its affairs during his long term of office.

Scarff's outstanding ability as an organiser reached its peak in the VIIth International Cancer Conference, held in London in 1958. He was secretary-general of the Congress and it was generally considered that the resounding success of the meeting was responsible for his being appointed CBE in 1960. His election to the FRCS in 1958 gave him great pleasure, and was the result both of his work on breast cancer and other malignancies, in which he did outstanding work on the relation of histology to prognosis; and of the interest lie took in young postgraduates, bent on a surgical career, who would spend a year or two in his laboratory. Most of these pupils later achieved distinction in surgical circles and carried with them the permanent imprint which he had made on them.

Scarff never married. He was a shy, yet very friendly and generous man; and a host of friends testified to the ease with which one could break through the pipe-smoking silences of the first contact. He was an enthusiastic golfer, a keen bridge player and an assiduous member of the Savage Club. His five years of retirement were happy and spent in part-time research and in some of the national and international activities of societies and panels in which he had for so long participated. His death came at a time when he was beginning to contemplate complete retirement to the country, a move which his friends viewed with apprehension. He died on 19 January 1970.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Brit med J 1970, 1, 308;Lancet 1970, 1, 255].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England