Reye, Ralph Douglas Kenneth

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MB BS 1937 MD 1945 FRACP

Douglas Reye was the first to describe the childhood disease now known as Reye Syndrome, and to recognise it as a distinct illness.

Douglas was born in Townsville, Queensland in 1912. He moved to Sydney to study medicine at the University of Sydney, living at St Paul’s College until he graduated in 1937. He completed his Residency at the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children where he remained for the whole of his active life. Although he enlisted in the army in 1940, there was a shortage of pathologists at the time and his release was obtained by the Hospital. He remained on the reserve for the length of the war.

Douglas was appointed acting-Director of the Department of Pathology at the Hospital in 1941 and became full-time Director in 1946. During his time has Director, Douglas expanded the Institute of Pathology to include “establishments for a microbiologist, biochemist and haematologist, fields which previously he had encompassed himself”.[1]

He was awarded a Doctor of Medicine in 1945 and worked for many years as a part-time Lecturer in Pathology at the University of Sydney. Of his written contributions, J M Alexander writes:

His bibliography was not voluminous but all publications dealt with entities which had either never been described previously or concerning which little had been written. His MD thesis concerned histiocytic reticulosis (one of his pet aversions was the term histiocytosis-X). He was the first to describe the subdermal fibrous tumours of infancy often referred to as Reteoma-1 and Reyoma-2. His main claim to fame worldwide was his description in The Lancet in 1963 of “Encephalopathy and fatty degeneration of the viscera: a disease entity in childhood” which has ever since been recognised as the Reye Syndrome.[1]

The causes of Reye Syndrome are still not known but it predominantly affects children between the ages of four and 16. According to the National Reye’s Syndrome Foundation, the disease “affects all organs of the body, but most lethally the liver and the brain. Reye’s Syndrome is a two-phase illness because it is almost always associated with a previous viral infection, such as influenza, cold, or chicken pox”.[1] Douglas’s publication in The Lancet was the first description of the disease as a distinct syndrome. Equally important were Douglas’ observations on the histopathology of congenital rubella contained in Sir Norman Gregg’s original 1941 description of this syndrome, and his later identification in the 1960s of renal and other arterial stenoses in affected children. Alexander describes Douglas:

Douglas was essentially a shy man and gave the impression of aloofness to those who did not know him well. Registrars and residents tended not to approach him but when forced to do so by those who knew him well, found that he was only too keen to share his great knowledge and experience with them.

Douglas Reye passed away in 1977, two days after he retired.

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Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) Reye, Ralph Douglas Kenneth. Faculty of Medicine Online Museum and Archive, University of Sydney.

An alternate version appears in: Mellor, L. 150 Years, 150 Firsts: The People of the Faculty of Medicine (2006) Sydney, Sydney University Press.