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‘No one could do experiments quite like Prof Ian Glynn’ - Trinity College pays tribute following physiologist’s death at 94

Fellows at Trinity College have paid tribute to physiologist Prof Ian Glynn following his death at 94.

Prof Glynn grew up in Hackney and, as an undergraduate at Trinity, his director of studies was Alan Hodgkin, who subsequently offered him a place as a research student in the physiology lab.

Prof Ian Glynn
Prof Ian Glynn

He took this up in 1953 after spending six months as house physician at the Central Middlesex Hospital completing his medical training. In 1955 he was elected to a research fellowship at Trinity and a year later completed his PhD. As part of his national service, Prof Glynn was appointed medical officer to RAF Sutton Bridge.

In his 80th birthday speech to Trinity fellows, Prof Glynn recalled it was “perhaps the least glamorous unit in the Air Force, a small-hutted camp on reclaimed land near King’s Lynn, whose job it was to service two kinds of aero engine (both already obsolescent), and to pick up any bits of crashed aircraft in East Anglia before they demoralised more important parts of the Air Force”.

He added: “For me, though, Sutton Bridge had the great advantage that I could remain in touch with Cambridge. At the end of 1957, the unit at Sutton Bridge was closed down, and I was released from the RAF on condition that I spent the remaining half-year of my national service helping the surgical team at Papworth, who were trying to establish techniques for open-heart surgery using an artificial heart-lung machine.”

Prof Glynn’s understanding of hydraulics solved the difficulties the team had experienced in developing an artificial heart-lung machine for pumping and aerating blood. His interest in the movement of ions built on the research of Alan Hodgkin and Andrew Huxley, who worked together on the mechanism of conduction in nerves, which led to their Nobel Prize (shared with Sir John Carew Eccles) in 1963.

Explaining Prof Glynn’s work on the ‘sodium pump’, Trinity fellow Prof Andrew Crawford said: “Ian Glynn had a reputation in the physiology department as a consummate experimentalist who worked out the membrane mechanism whereby red blood cells regulate their ion concentrations, osmotic pressure and size. The same enzyme – the sodium-potassium pump – also controls the flow of water and solutes across transporting tissues such as those in the kidney and the intestines.

“He was aided by a constant stream of talented overseas post-doctoral workers. I once asked a lecturer with similar interests in another biology department why Ian was so successful and was told that no one could do the experiments like Ian.”

Prof Glynn was vice-master of Trinity from 1980 to 1986, and professor of physiology at Cambridge from 1986 to 1995, when he became professor emeritus. He was elected fellow of the Royal Society in 1970 and held honorary foreign membership of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Later in life, Prof Glynn published two books for a general readership: An Anatomy of Thought: The Origin and Machinery of the Mind (2003) and Elegance in Science: The beauty of simplicity (2010). He is survived by his wife Jenifer, the sister of the scientist Rosalind Franklin, and their children, Sarah, Judith and Simon.

He died on July 7.

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