Arthur Max Barrett: A Cambridge Pathologist

Published on 10 Jun 2020 · 6 mins read

When I was a third year undergraduate at Cambridge, I did some research during my Part II course in Pathology (looking at the genetic causes of primordial dwarfism). We discovered a new mechanism that a certain gene mutation (in Cenpj, part of the centrosome) causes this form of dwarfism, with implications for how our bodies limit our size, and perhaps how cancers bypass this to keep growing indefinitely.

I presented my thesis and the department awarded me the "Max Barrett prize for Best Project in Cancer & Genetic Disease". But who was Max Barrett?


He's the father of Syd Barrett from Pink Floyd, the rock'n'roll band, and related to Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, suffragette and first doctor to qualify in the UK.

Early years

Arthur Max Barrett, MD (28 July 1909 – 11 December 1961) was born in Thaxted, Essex, but moved to Cambridge in his teenage years. He went on to study medicine at Pembroke College, Cambridge in 1927 having won a State Scholarship. There he obtained a considerable number of awards and honours: a Major Scholarship in 1928; a Schoolbred Scholarship in 1930; a First Class place in the Natural Science Tripos Part I in 1930 and in Part II in 1931.

This Part II course in Pathology (the same one I studied!) was introduced in 1925 by Prof. Henry Roy Dean, who he was very much influenced by. This was followed by a Foundress Scholarship in 1931; five prizes during his clinical training in the London Hospital Medical College (where he went as an entrance scholar in Pathology). He graduated MB BCh in 1934.

A renowned teacher

He worked in the wards and laboratories of the London Hospital from 1934 to 1938 and was University Demonstrator in Cambridge from 1938 to 1946, the only one in the Department of Pathology during the war years. Even during this period he managed somehow to continue original work on the Paul-Bunnell test, as well as introducing his valuable picric acid method for removing “formalin fixation pigment” from sections.

His research

His research, which had commenced in the Clinical Laboratory, was pursued vigorously at the Bernhard Baron Institute where he held a Halley Stewart Research Fellowship. His observations drew him to the study of “target” corpuscles. He found that these misshapen red cells are in fact “bowl-shaped” in fresh blood and that they assume the form of “target cells” only in fixed films; he initiated the concept that the special resistance of the bowl-shaped red cells to haemolysis in hypotonic saline is proportional to their large relative surface area.

When he returned to Cambridge in 1938, as well as teaching he was actively interested both in the routine pathology services of Addenbrooke's Hospital. In 1946, when those services were saddled to the university, he became consultant for the hospital as University Morbid Anatomist and Histologist. He became a very prominent pathologist.

N.B. He is different to Norman Barrett, for whom the eponymous Barrett's oesophagus is named.

His research spanned many different topics, from developing a test for infectious mononucleosis (glandular fever) to determining the cause of toxicity from mustard gas. He is said to have believed in the precise use of language and attention to detail, and often able to discover some small but important clue that would lead to a firm diagnosis. He is remembered in Addenbrooke's by the Barrett Room, named after him.

His later years

During his later years as University Morbid Anatomist he somehow found time to carry out a brilliant investigation on arterial hypertrophy. This work was embodied in his thesis for the degree of M.D., for which he was awarded the Raymond Horton Smith Prize of the University. He noted that Turnbull had believed it possible to form an approximate estimate of the increase in weight of the heart by examination of the arteries; but Max stated with typical modesty that for observers “less experienced than Turnbull estimations based merely on inspection are likely to be unreliable”.

Barrett’s 'histological eye' indeed was among the most gifted and experienced of his time, yet it was characteristic of his native honesty and meticulous accuracy to demand a method of assessing arterial hypertrophy that is free from subjective error. For this he developed a highly efficient quantitative method of assessing “relative thickness” and cross-sectional “relative area” of the tunica media.

By use of his “undulation index” Barrett took full account of the degree of post-mortem contraction of arteries, a factor which had vitiated so many previous investigations. Barrett’s solution of this problem is a notable advance in angiology, and will always be a basic model for those interested in transferring histological observations from the art of opinion and impression into the exact science of quantitative measurement.

His legacy

He was also a member of the Cambridge Philharmonic Society as well, where he was Honorary Secretary for more than 20 years, and this musical legacy is something that he imparted on all of his children. It is reported that they had many impromptu family music nights. He passed away from cancer while his son Syd, who would go on to start Pink Floyd was 14, and it is quoted as being the first major life event that would go on to contribute to his later mental health issues and struggles with LSD.

Suddenly, the Barrett family's world was turned on its head. Inoperable cancer was diagnosed and Max Barrett died suddenly on December 11. Syd had religiously kept a diary ever since his eleventh birthday. He left the entry for this day blank.