David Pegg obituary

Clinical scientist and academic who pioneered groundbreaking cooling techniques for use in organ transplantation

In the early days of organ transplantation one of the thorniest problems facing medical science was how to keep an organ functional in the period between harvesting it from a donor and inserting it into a grateful recipient. David Pegg, who has died aged 86, did much towards solving that conundrum, and so enabled us to take for granted our capacity to stop the clock of life by freezing or cooling an organ before restarting its normal function.

One of the pioneers in the field of low temperature biology – building on the work of Audrey Smith, Christopher Polge and Peter Mazur – David made perhaps his greatest contribution through research into the preservation of human kidneys, which he began in 1965.

From dubious survival times of eight hours or fewer, by using simple surface cooling through surrounding the kidney in ice, he and his colleagues at the Medical Research Council (MRC) in north London worked on techniques whereby a plastic tube was inserted into the renal artery and the organ was flushed with a cold solution of balanced salts and nutrients to cool it from within. This was far more efficient.

As a further step, David developed sophisticated continuous perfusion methods, getting fluids to pass through a closed circuit that could be used to cool the kidney, and even mimic blood to provide oxygen and essential nutrients. Both techniques are now used routinely in organ transplantation services worldwide and allow organs to be maintained for up to 30 hours and function well after transplantation. Later he pioneered new freezing techniques that have proved to be helpful in preserving plant cells for agriculture, fish reproductive cells for fish farming and, in the field of conservation, cells from endangered species of plants and animals.

Born in Chester, David was the son of Philip, a Baptist minister, and his wife, Evelyn (nee Middleton), a teacher. He went to Dr Challoner’s grammar school in Amersham, Buckinghamshire, and then King’s College London to study medicine. He did his clinical undergraduate studies at Westminster medical school in London and after graduating in 1956 served in the school’s teaching group for a year, before working in its department of pathology for a decade from 1957, specialising in haematology.

It was at Westminster medical school that David first became intrigued by all the possibilities of organ transplantation and started working with the surgeon and organ transplant pioneer Roy Calne. They were faced with two big problems: how to prevent rejection of an organ once it had been transplanted and how to prevent damage to an organ once a potential donor had died. While Calne set about working on the former, David addressed the latter, spending much of the rest of his career concentrating on tissue and organ preservation.

In 1967 he left Westminster to join Smith, the leading scientist in the field at the time, as a senior scientist in the division of low temperature biology at the MRC’s clinical research laboratories in Mill Hill. Three years later he was promoted to head of cryobiology – the study of the effects of low temperatures on living things – at the MRC’s new clinical research centre at Northwick Park hospital, Harrow, and remained there until attracted to Cambridge by Calne to become head of the MRC’s medical cryobiology group in 1978.

He stayed there until 1992, when he set up the East Anglia Tissue Bank at the National Blood Service in Cambridge, serving as its director for a year. Then he was director of the medical cryobiology unit at York University (1993-2006), and an honorary professor in the biology department (1999-2018).

Recognising the potential global impact that cryobiology could have so many areas, he was a key figure in the field, setting up the international Society for Cryobiology in 1964, helping to start its journal, Cryobiology, of which he later became editor in chief, and becoming the society’s president in 1974.

Two years earlier he had visited Ukraine to set up collaborations with low temperature scientists that endure today. He also pursued other links with the then Soviet bloc in Czechoslovakia and East Germany, and helped many young scientists behind the iron curtain to expand their research vision. He had a general interest in justice and human rights and studied the possibilities for international conflict resolution, particularly in the Middle East. In 1965 David founded the British Society for Low Temperature Biology, which has now expanded to cover Europe, and twice served as its secretary.

In 1977 he married Monica Wusteman. She survives him, along with their children, Owen and Elly, his sons Andrew, Tim and Simon, from his first marriage, to June (nee Gossett), which ended in divorce, two grandsons and four granddaughters.

• David Pegg, clinical scientist, born 22 June 1933; died 3 August 2019


Colin Green

The GuardianTramp

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