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Malcolm Molyneux obituary

·4-min read

Tropical medicine researcher who advanced understanding of malaria and helped improve healthcare in Malawi

When Malcolm Molyneux, who has died aged 77, went to the Queen Elizabeth Central hospital in Blantyre as a consultant in 1974, he developed a keen sense of some of Malawi’s major health problems and the research needed to address them. None was more pressing than malaria, which at the time killed about 1 million people every year, mostly children in Africa.

A decade later he moved on to the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine at the University of Liverpool. With an American colleague, Dr Terrie Taylor, he raised funds from the Wellcome Trust and US National Institutes of Health to open a research ward adjacent to the children’s department in Blantyre, and began studying malaria there in 1990.

Some of his earliest work was on cerebral malaria, the mysterious and often fatal coma that affects children infected with the malaria parasite. Malcolm identified factors associated with severe disease and developed a new score to assess severity. The Blantyre Coma score, as it became known, is still in use today; the original publication has been widely cited in later research papers.

With a better definition of what cerebral malaria was, it became possible to investigate its cause and develop treatments. As the Malawi research programme grew, other major health problems were addressed, including chest, gastrointestinal and brain infections, as well as HIV; on a typical ward round in the late 1990s it seemed that every child was accompanied by a grandparent because the virus had wiped out a whole generation of parents. In the local language, Chichewa, Malcolm would always comfort, even if he could not cure.

He played a critical role in the formation of the College of Medicine at the University of Malawi in 1991, by ensuring that research was considered a key element within it. In 1994 a formal research partnership was established between Liverpool and the College of Medicine, and Malcolm soon returned to Malawi to lead what ultimately became the Malawi-Liverpool-Wellcome Trust (MLW) programme. In all he spent 30 years in Malawi.

While his research focused on improving immediate patient care, he supported many others in their attempts to better understand the underlying mechanisms of disease in order to arrive at new therapies, and encouraged the development of talented young clinicians and scientists.

In addition to helping Malawian scientists, he supported young investigators from the UK and other high-income countries. He insisted that those with medical backgrounds should help with the clinical workload, as well as pursuing their research interests.

Twice a year he returned to Liverpool to teach. His combination of laconic humour and natural story telling made him a memorable, if unconventional, lecturer. He would often abandon his slides and perch on a desk, arms folded, to chat informally about the subject. By the time he retired as director of MLW in 2007 there were more than 400 people working there, including both local and foreign clinicians and scientists. He continued living in Malawi until 2015, supporting and mentoring informally, and displaying limitless enthusiasm.

Malcolm had himself started life in Africa. Born in the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), he was the son of missionary parents, Joyce (nee Gammon) and Colin Molyneux, and went to the Sakeji Mission school in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). After gaining a natural sciences and then a medical degree (1967) at Cambridge University, he completed his postgraduate clinical training in London. There he met Elizabeth Neech, and they married in 1969.

As a medical student he had briefly visited Malawi, and after five years working in London returned there with Liz and their young family. Initially the couple worked as medical missionaries in a remote hospital. Although his faith remained important to him, Malcolm did not foist it on others.

Liz went on to become professor of paediatrics at the College of Medicine, and in 2006 they were both appointed OBE. Malcolm edited several medical journals, and advised the Malawian government and World Health Organisation.

In retirement he remained as active as ever, cycling from Land’s End to John O’Groats, with a climb of Ben Nevis along the way, a challenge taken up by others as The Length and Height of Britain; he then cycled to the island’s most northwest, western and eastern points. These ventures, which he managed despite having chronic leukaemia, raised thousands of pounds for the hospital in Malawi and other charities.

He is survived by Liz, a daughter, three sons and 11 grandchildren.

• Malcolm Edward Molyneux, medical researcher and director, born 20 November 1943; died 16 November 2021

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