Sat. Jan 22nd, 2022

When Malcolm Molyneux, who died at the age of 77, went to 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 solve them. No one was more urgent than malaria, which at the time killed about 1 million people each year, mostly children in Africa.

A decade later, he went on to the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine at the University of Liverpool. Together with an American colleague, Dr. Terrie Taylor, he raised funds from the Wellcome Trust and the US National Institutes of Health to open a research department next to the children’s ward 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 serious illness and developed a new score to assess the severity. The Blantyre Coma score, as it became known, is still in use today; the original publication has been widely cited in later research articles.

With a better definition of what cerebral malaria was, it became possible to investigate its cause and develop treatments. As Malawi’s research program grew, other major health problems were treated, including breast, stomach and brain infections, as well as HIV; at a typical ward round in the late 1990s, it seemed like every child was accompanied by a grandparent because the virus had wiped out an entire generation of parents. In the local language, Chichewa, Malcolm would always comfort even if he could not heal.

He played a crucial 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 in 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 eventually became the Malawi-Liverpool-Wellcome Trust (MLW) program. In all, he spent 30 years in Malawi.

Malcolm Molyneux would always comfort even if he could not heal.
Malcolm Molyneux would always comfort even if he could not heal. Photo: Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine

While his research focused on improving immediate patient care, he supported many others in their efforts 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 assisting Malawian scientists, he supported young investigators from Britain and other high-income countries. He insisted that people with medical backgrounds should help with the clinical workload, as well as pursue their research interests.

Twice a year he returned to Liverpool to teach. His combination of laconic humor and natural storytelling made him a memorable, albeit unconventional, speaker. He often left his slides and sat down at a desk with his arms crossed to chat informally about the subject. When he retired as director of MLW in 2007, more than 400 people worked there, including both local and foreign clinicians and scientists. He continued to live in Malawi until 2015, supporting and mentoring informally and showing boundless enthusiasm.

Malcolm himself had 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 attended Sakeji Mission School in northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). After obtaining a science and then a medical degree (1967) at Cambridge University, he completed his postgraduate clinical education 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 of working in London, he 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 impose it on others.

Liz became a professor of pediatrics at the College of Medicine, and in 2006 they were both named OBE. Malcolm edited several medical journals and advised the Malawian government and the World Health Organization.

When he retired, he remained as active as ever, cycling from Lands End to John O’Groats, with a rise of Ben Nevis along the way, a challenge that others took up as The Length and Height of Britain; he then cycled to the most northwestern, western and eastern points of the island. These ventures, which he managed despite having chronic leukemia, raised thousands of pounds to the hospital in Malawi and other charities.

He leaves behind Liz, a daughter, three sons and 11 grandchildren.

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

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