On May 1, 1941, a cloud of German war planes darkened the skies over Liverpool, dropping bombs that would kill thousands, maim many more, and reduce the city’s famous port to a pile of jagged rubble. The weeklong siege would leave the entire city—its houses, schools, shops, churches—in ruins, but it would stir in the survivors a potent mix of grit, grace, and generosity.
“I’ve often said that if a Liverpool person felt that you needed his last possession more than he did, he would give it to you,” said Graham Beastall. The once grim industrial city would remake itself over the next few decades, producing some of the country’s most beloved artists, actors, and musicians. Beastall, who was born in Liverpool in 1947, witnessed this renaissance. “During my teens and twenties, some of the best UK comedians all started life in Liverpool,” he said. In the 1960s, the Beatles put Liverpool on the map for millions of screaming fans all over the world. Beastall, it turns out, went to high school with Paul McCartney and George Harrison.
It has been nearly 40 years since Beastall left Liverpool for Glasgow, where he still lives. In that time, he has risen through the ranks of British science. Starting out as a lecturer in steroid biochemistry at the University of Glasgow in 1972, he switched to a more hands-on clinical post at the Glasgow Infirmary in 1976 and founded its endocrinology laboratory three years later.
In the early 1980s, Beastall was asked to be clinical leader for the department of clinical biochemistry in a multisite network encompassing four hospitals, the National Health Service Greater Glasgow and Clyde (NHSGGC), and would spend years transforming it into one of the most efficiently run large organizations in the UK. The hormone assays developed under his leadership would be used by clinicians and researchers all over the world. His own research projects on parathyroid and other hormones would help usher in a new era of understanding in endocrinology. Most notably, Beastall would improve the way laboratory services are delivered to millions of Britons. These efforts would earn him many awards, most recently the Commander of the Order of the British Empire, which is one rung short of a knighthood.
“He’s in a league of his own. I can’t think of anyone who compares with him in clinical chemistry in the UK,” said Mike Wallace, a biochemist who now heads the NHSGGC endocrinology unit that Beastall founded.
Two years ago, Beastall was persuaded to run for the presidency of the IFCC. To his surprise, he won. Now he spends his time crisscrossing oceans and continents, enthusiastically persuading IFCC members of the power of clinical chemists to improve the health of people in developed and, especially, developing countries. “What I’m doing is pretty much evangelism along the lines of, ‘Nobody else is going to make a difference so it’s up to you,’” he said.
“He wants to make a contribution. He wants to change people’s lives, make things better for them,” said Wallace. “He does have a crusade to change the world.”
That altruistic impulse does not ebb when he returns home. As a rule, Beastall tries to be back in Glasgow by Friday evening, when he makes his way to one of the city’s toughest neighborhoods, a housing project, where he is the local scout troop leader. Saturday mornings he is back at the scout hall, cleaning out toilets, sweeping floors. “I do all the maintenance and decoration and whatever,” he said. He also chairs his local region of scouts, which means he might be organizing fundraising and other activities for 10 000 scouts and leaders.
“Graham leads by example,” said Gary Bainbridge, the program and development officer for Beastall’s scout region. “He gets involved. He gives freely of his time, expertise, and his enthusiasm. I think that helps to motivate lots of other people.”
What makes all this possible, colleagues say, is his boundless energy. “I don’t think he sleeps,” Wallace said. They cite his powers of organization. “His office is immaculate,” he said. But there is a sense that Beastall does this all because he knows no other way of being, that the push to help feels deeply comfortable. Through all his globe-trotting and Friday evenings, it is as though he is still carrying out the rebuilding of war-torn Liverpool.
In a sense, Beastall owes his very existence to the German threat. His parents met in 1942 at a Royal Air Force base in the north of Scotland. His father, a bomber pilot, was soon deployed to protect the British coast, while his mother kept an eye on the missions. “She tracked which planes were where,” he said. They married after the war and moved to Liverpool, where his dad got a desk job in a shipping firm. He did not talk much about his wartime exploits. “Whilst he obviously did the patriotic thing, he was killing people, and he wasn’t very comfortable with it,” said Beastall. In general, Beastall’s dad seemed somewhat less engaged than his mom, who lost her first baby in childbirth. “I was her only child, and I think she spoiled me rotten,” he said.
Beastall’s mother signed him up, at the age of five, with the scouts, an event that would be life-defining. His scoutmaster became a hugely important figure for him, as did his scout friends. Their adventures together were among the most joyful and vivid of his childhood. “Climbing a mountain through the night to see the dawn rise on the top of a mountain—that lives with me for a very, very long time,” he said. Once Beastall helped organize a 50-mile relay race that began at midnight and ended on the top of a mountain the following night.
Through it all, Beastall managed to excel in school and was admitted to a boy’s high school designed for academic high achievers, where he studied chemistry, physics, and biology. “It wasn’t a great school for sports or arts,” he said, but he remembers being deeply affected by John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, which famously depicts the lives of social outcasts.
Ironically, it was in this arts-poor high school that he met the young McCartney, “a genuinely ordinary bloke who was really friendly,” and Harrison. “You’d barely take notice of him because he kept to himself,” Beastall said. He was even present at a local Liverpool church fair where McCartney met John Lennon, “though I didn’t actually see the meeting,” he said.
His early career path appears to have been shaped, to a great extent, by his desire to stay in Liverpool. “I had such a fantastic social life through all my scouting that I really didn’t want to leave,” he said. He studied biochemistry at Liverpool University, in part because he lacked the math background to do pure chemistry (he had dropped the subject in high school because the math teacher gave too much homework). “I quickly realized that biochemistry was more relevant to everyday life than chemistry,” Beastall said. A biochemistry professor working on steroids offered him a doctoral thesis project. As he was finishing, a one-year position in veterinary biochemistry opened up. “I thought, I’ll take that. Stay in Liverpool a bit longer and carry on with all my friends,” he said. “That one-year experience equipped me to get a plum job in the University department of (steroid) biochemistry in Glasgow.”
By then he had met his future wife, Judith, whom he met through scouting. “She was one of the gang,” he said. They married and settled into a small flat in a town on the outskirts of Glasgow, where Judith had taken a teaching job. A few years later, they bought a 160-year-old farm cottage with a large garden in the town of Kirkintilloch, which translates to “Church in Lake.” In 1975, their son Richard, now an accountant, was born, and two years later, James, now an orthopedic surgeon.
Beastall, who describes himself as a morning person, is up and about by 7 AM. Until recently, he would commute into Glasgow, but he now tends to his duties as IFCC president, and also as a part-time advisor to the NHS, from his cottage. On weekends, Beastall, along with his wife, spends time working in their large garden and playing with their Labrador, Penny. When he is home, that is. Since September, he has been to Australia, Lebanon, Syria, Poland, Turkey, Italy, and the US, and will soon be traveling to Cyprus, Corfu, and Chile. “I could write a book on airports of the world,” he said.
So what would he do with a sabbatical year, free from all professional responsibilities? “Go to Africa. Work with the local people, show them the real basics about how to set up a lab, how to do quality control and how to organize themselves. I’d get a huge kick out of that,” he said. Then, with his trademark magnanimity, and a wee touch of evangelism, he added, “I’m not alone. A lot of my colleagues in the IFCC would just love to do that. That’s one of the things that brings you into an international organization, the thought that you can help other people.”
Sponsored by the AACC History
Division and Department of Laboratory Medicine, Children’s Hospital Boston.
- © 2010 The American Association for Clinical Chemistry