The Doc and the Duchess: The Life and Legacy of George H. A. Clowes

The Doc and the Duchess: The Life and Legacy of George H. A. Clowes


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George Henry Alexander Clowes was a pivotal figure in the development of the insulin program at the Eli Lilly Company. Through his leadership, scientists and clinicians at Lilly and the University of Toronto created a unique, international team to develop and purify insulin and take the production of this life-saving agent to an industrial scale. This biography, written by his grandson, presents his scientific achievements, and also takes note of his social and philanthropic contributions, which he shared with his wife, Edith. It tells the story of Clowes from his childhood in late Victorian England to his death at Woods Hole on Cape Cod in 1958. Educated in England and Germany, Clowes came to America to join a startup laboratory in Buffalo, where he conducted basic research on cancer and applied research on other disease-related problems. Assuming the position of head of research at Lilly, Clowes was at the center of one of the great discoveries that changed the course of medical history and offered new life to millions of individuals with diabetes and other metabolic disorders. Clowes was also instrumental in the development of other commercial pharmaceutical advances. Devoted to a number of philanthropic causes, Clowes and Edith contributed greatly to the cultural life of his adopted country, a contribution that continues to this day.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253020420
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 02/02/2016
Series: Philanthropic and Nonprofit Studies
Pages: 232
Sales rank: 795,735
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Alexander W. Clowes (1946–2015), vascular surgeon, internationally renowned scientist in vascular biology, teacher and mentor, held the Gavora-Schilling Endowed Chair of Vascular Surgery at the University of Washington School of Medicine. Clowes was a Director and President of The Clowes Fund.

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The Doc and the Duchess

The Life and Legacy of George H. A. Clowes

By Alexander W. Clowes

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2016 The Clowes Fund
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-02055-0


Growing Up in Victorian England

Pleasure is to mingle with study, that the boy may think learning rather an amusement than a toil. Tender youth is to suffer neither severe thrashings nor sour and threatening looks, nor any kind of tyranny, for by such usage the fire of genius is either extinguished or in a great measure damped.

Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (1473–1530)

George Henry Alexander Clowes was born on August 27, 1877, to Josiah Pratt Clowes and Ellen Seppings. His mother gave birth to him in his grandmother Clowes's house at 96 Anglesea Road, in the town of Ipswich, in southwestern Britain. The boy came to be known as Alec or Alick for short.

Alec's parents raised him in nearby Needham Market (population 1,300). He attended schools in villages and small towns all within a few miles of Ipswich, which was the principal seaport for regional traffic and the administrative center of Suffolk (population 50,000). Ipswich was at the time a major center for the manufacturing of farm machinery and railway parts. Other industries included brewing and malting, brick and cement making, and grain milling. Needham Market, situated on the river Gipping eight miles upstream of Ipswich, also participated in the corn, malt, and flour trade.

A variety of Needham Market businesses were located in the high street. As in many Suffolk towns, life was centered on the local church, St. John the Baptist, which was located across the street from Alec's home. Needham Market also supported a town hall (used for concerts, lectures, and meetings as well as for administration, the police station, the court, and the prison), Theobold's Grammar School (endowed in 1632), and an almshouse for poor women. In the Swan Hotel, the Conservative Association and chess club met regularly. The Old Schoolhouse, situated on the corner of the high street and Hawk Mill Street, was refurbished to house a coffee tavern and reading room. All in all, Needham Market must have been a comfortable, family-friendly place to grow up in.

After Alec's father, Josiah, finished his studies at the boarding school Brighton College, he returned to Ipswich to live with his widowed mother, Caroline, until, at age thirty-one, he married Ellen Seppings in 1875. First employed as a clerk, in 1879 he moved his young family, including Alec and Alec's sister, Helen Violet, to the house known as Silver Birches in the high street in Needham Market. Josiah's older brother, George Archibald Clowes, was already living in Needham Market and had established George A. Clowes & Co., a firm listed in Kelly's Directory as "maltsters, brewers, & corn, coal & oil cake merchants."

The Clowes (pronounced "clews") and Seppings families were part of a Victorian world devoted to professional, social, and family life shot through with religious beliefs. Alec's grandfather Thomas Clowes, the vicar of Ashbocking, and his mother, Ellen Seppings, were deeply committed to religion. When Ellen was preparing to leave home to marry Alec's father, the ladies of the Young Women's Bible Class wrote her a letter of congratulations, thanked her for her work as a teacher, and expressed their sorrow at their loss. They hoped that if they continued to act according to her teachings they would meet her again "safe upon the shining shore, where pain and partings all are o'er."

The letters between Alec and his mother, Ellen (Nellie), and sister, Violet (Vie), in later life reveal an intimacy and love for one another that must have commenced during the early years in Needham Market. Alec regularly wrote them and shared his innermost thoughts. As he grew older, he made certain to include Vie in every summer vacation and considered her his closest companion, replaced only after her death in 1910 by Edith Whitehill Hinkel, who would become his wife. At that time he reminisced in a letter to Edith:

I have been thinking so much of our dear Vie, of our long times together, of the expeditions all over Europe we took together and the glorious times ..., both always wishing for the same thing, enjoying the same thing, never a cloud for we always agreed. ... She was always content with what I wanted and so far as I can remember she always enjoyed it all in her quiet way — and as I look back on one scene after another I wonder if I was selfish for whilst I always wished to please Vie, I fear she always let me choose the way — but then I know that I never knew real happiness with another companion for more than thirty years. ... I think Vie and I understood one another and were more dependent on one another than brothers and sisters are as a rule. I fear however that I never appreciated till she was taken ill what my good sister with her firm noble straightforward simple nature really meant to me. ... But once more my darling I fall back entirely on you! You are from hence forth all in all to me, and it should be so.

The Clowes family, listed in Burke's Landed Gentry, traces its origins back to the fifteenth century with one Geoffrey Clowes of Tutbury, Staffordshire. Of all the ancestors, the most distinguished and best known was Sir William Clowes of St. Bartholomew's Hospital, surgeon to Queen Elizabeth I and author of one of the earliest textbooks of surgery in the English language. A branch of the family was also established in the East Anglia counties of Norfolk and Suffolk in the seventeenth century. Alec's grandfather, father, and mother were all born and lived near Norwich in Norfolk, approximately fifty miles north of Ipswich.

Alec's father, Josiah Pratt Clowes, known as Joe, had met Ellen Seppings in 1861 when his brother Josiah Herbert Clowes married Ellen's sister, Susan Emily Seppings. The brothers — who, oddly, shared a first name — had grown up in a family of nine children presided over by Alec's grandmother Caroline Clowes and grandfather Thomas Clowes. Thomas Clowes was a scholar (fellow of Queen's College, Cambridge, and fifteenth wrangler of 1823) and the vicar of Ashbocking, a hamlet of several hundred souls.

Many of Alec's relatives were merchants, clergymen, and professional people. His father's brother Josiah Herbert followed a long family tradition and entered the ministry; he and his son Ernest Guy Clowes were the rectors for the Church of St. Peter in the Suffolk village of Weston, near Beccles, from 1870 to 1947. Another son of Josiah Herbert Clowes, Thomas Herbert Clowes, was employed in the Indian and Egyptian governments as an engineer. He was the inspector general of irrigation in Upper Egypt in 1905 and played an important role in the construction of the first Aswan dam during the period 1899–1902. His brother Weston Sydney Clowes (1871–1947) attended Cambridge University and taught at the Farnborough School in Hampshire. Many of these relatives retired to Suffolk and ultimately were buried in the Weston Rectory graveyard.

Alec's uncle George Archibald Clowes was a churchwarden devoted to the Church of St. John the Baptist, across from Alec's house. From early on, George Archibald looked out for his younger brother Joe, and Alec, whom he called Alick. He was, at every turn, solicitous of his brother's well-being. Perhaps this concern, which he shared with his nephew, had to do with Joe's health, which was affected adversely by burns he suffered in childhood.

Joe's sister Anna Clowes noted in a letter to Alec in 1911:

Of course you have felt anxiety about your dear father. His condition when in Ipswich was very disappointing but perhaps it brought things to a crisis by convincing him that he must be more strict both in diet and in taking exercise. ... We must not forget either that the very nature of his illness tends to irritability. He was born with an irritable nature or temperament and the set-back in childhood from the terrible burns, the traces of which betrayed themselves for 3 years, fostered irritability. Besides which he lost brain power. He was quick and sharp before the burns, but I have seen him scarlet over his sums with his Mother with the effort of comprehending them, and the multiplication table which he had known perfectly was gone.

Joe had been brought into the brewing business in Needham Market by his brother George Archibald in 1877. Later Joe withdrew from the day-to-day operations of the family's brewing business, and in 1893 he moved to West Hampstead, presumably because of deteriorating health. George Archibald engaged his son-in-law, Arthur John Walker, to replace Joe, and in 1899 he incorporated the family enterprise as G. A. Clowes, Walker & Co. Joe, together with his brother and Arthur Walker, were listed as the directors. George Archibald structured the new company such that the brothers shared equally in the profits and Alec would have an opportunity, if he chose to pursue it, to become a director once Joe retired.


That Alec and Violet grew up in a happy, loving family is evident in the intimate letters back and forth between Alec and his parents in later years. Nevertheless, the halcyon days of childhood were brief and soon over.

As an eight-year-old, Clowes was a day student at Theobold's Grammar School in Needham Market. Only eight boys were in his class, taught by the headmaster, William Boyce, and Boyce's wife, Lucy Ann. The term report cards summarize their impressions of Clowes. In the summer term ending on July 31, 1886, Boyce wrote: "This boy is one of the best in my form and has worked exceedingly well. He has behaved himself well and has not been kept in school once." A year later: "His whole term's work has been extremely satisfactory. He has worked pluckily, and with a good heart. Evening lessons always well prepared. He shows great progress in every subject." Indeed he did: he was first in mathematics and second in French, but only fifth in English. In the summer term of 1888, he was in Form III and graduated first in mathematics, English, and French and third in Latin. "Clowes makes excellent progress and always does his work in a most satisfactory manner. Conduct good."

In the fall of 1888, the eleven-year-old Clowes entered the all-boys Bungay Grammar School, located thirty miles north of Needham Market. His experience at the school was shaped in part by the actions of its Elizabethan founders. The school in 1565 was broadly supported by the citizens of Bungay, among them one Lionel Throckmorton. Throckmorton gave funds to erect a new building on Earsham Street and endowed scholarships for poor boys to continue their education at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. The mission of the school and its rules were adopted from Eton, and their influence was still felt when Clowes was in attendance.

To ensure that each student received his due attention, class size was limited to thirty. Great emphasis was placed on grammar in English, Latin, and Greek. School resources were limited; one old graduate recalled "a blackboard, a globe, three or four maps, text-books and slates."

Decorations, equipment, books and even boys were not all they might have been — old ink-bespattered walls, the same grimy desks, grimy books, and grimy boys, if a rather fanciful article in the Magazine is to be believed! ... Offensive catapults were strongly discouraged, but they nevertheless formed part of the occasional equipment of some boys. Paper pellets dipped in ink were the usual ammunition.

The boys had time off on Thursdays to take part in various sporting activities, including pole-jumping.

During the latter half of the nineteenth century, the state was beginning to take a much bigger interest in education. In response to external reviews of the Inquiry Commissions into Endowed Schools, acts were passed by Parliament in 1869, 1873, and 1874. The new scheme based on these reviews was approved in 1879 and implemented by the Bungay headmaster, George William Jones. By the time Clowes entered the school nine years later, a modern curriculum was in place. Entrance examinations were made obligatory. "Once admitted, a boy was to have instruction in reading, writing, arithmetic, history, geography, English grammar, composition, and literature, mathematics, Latin, at least one European language, drawing, drill and vocal music." Instruction in natural science was included in the curriculum and later expanded to include chemistry.

Headmaster Jones, in his report to the school in 1884, stated: "It is fairly easy to cart in knowledge, but how are you to keep it in a boy's head, and, if you succeed in doing so, what is such knowledge worth? A really good education never hurt anyone; it is the pseudo-education, the compelling of quantity to take the place of quality, the mistaking of the mere knowing certain facts for education, that does the harm."

In 1886, he said: "In this age there is a great deal of competitive examination, which leads to what is called 'cram,' and for that sort of 'cram,' which puts into boys' mouths knowledge which never gets into their brains, I have the greatest contempt."

At another time, he expressed the belief that more practical skills such as bookkeeping and German language instead of Greek might be ofvalue. In 1890, Jones stepped aside and Clowes's former headmaster, Rev. William Boyce, took over.

In the United Kingdom census of 1891, Clowes, age thirteen, was listed as a scholar living in Boyce's house along with an assistant teacher, Boyce's family and servants, and eight other boys. In a letter of reference written in May 1897, Boyce wrote:

It gives me great pleasure to state that Mr. G. H. A. Clowes was a pupil under me from 1886 to 1892 [in Needham Market and Bungay], when he received the ground work of a thoroughly sound and useful education. When he left me to continue his studies in a larger school [Ipswich], he was already reading good Latin and French authors, had made considerable progress in Prose and Verse composition, was for his age well-grounded in Mathematics, and invariably satisfied me by his diligence. I may add also that I have known him since he was a child, and that his conduct has been in every respect most exemplary.

Rev. Boyce was acquainted not only with Clowes but also with other members of the extended Clowes family, including Clowes's uncle Rev. Josiah Herbert Clowes and cousins Ernest Guy and Weston Sydney Clowes, who lived nearby in the rectory of the church in the village of Weston, five miles from Bungay. Ernest Guy Clowes replaced his father as the rector of the Weston church after his father's death in 1911. He joined the board of governors of the Bungay Grammar School in the 1930s.

In the fall of 1892, Clowes transferred to the Ipswich Grammar School. Why he transferred at this late time in his primary education is not clear. It is possible that he had become interested in science and thought that he might obtain greater exposure to the discipline in a larger school; it is also possible that his family wanted him to be closer to home. His certification letter in 1897 from J. H. Bartlett, the chairman of the governors for the Ipswich school, noted that Clowes "had received a good general education paying special attention to the Science Department."

The Ipswich Grammar School has an ancient and honorable history much like the one of the Bungay Grammar School. The original school was founded in the late 1300s and provided an education for young children of the citizens of the town. As with the Bungay School, the Ipswich School was endowed early so that poor boys could attend. A notable graduate, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, took an interest in his old school and set about creating the Cardinal's College of St. Mary in Ipswich; the Ipswich school was to be incorporated into the college. The college was only partly built when Wolsey was impeached and lost the favor of his king, Henry VIII. This historical event was captured in Shakespeare's play Henry VIII (Act IV, Scene 2) when the royal attendant Griffith converses with Queen Katharine, who is delighted by the fall of her enemy, Cardinal Wolsey. Griffith asks her to reconsider and praises Wolsey:

He was most princely. Ever witness for him
Those twins of learning that he rais'd in you,
Ipswich and Oxford! One of which [Ipswich] fell with him,
Unwilling to outlive the good that did it;
The other [Oxford], though unfinish'd, yet so famous.


Excerpted from The Doc and the Duchess by Alexander W. Clowes. Copyright © 2016 The Clowes Fund. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Foreword / John Lechleiter
Introduction: A Warm Embrace
1. Growing Up in Victorian England
2. The Search for a Cure of Cancer
3. Edith Whitehill Hinkel
4. Alec and Edith
5. 1914: The End of an Era
6. In the Borderline Fields of Medicine
7. Lilly and the Insulin Story
8. From Small to Large Scale Production of Insulin
9. Expansion of the Research Programs
10. Woods Hole, MBL, and the Pursuit of Cancer
11. The Duchess, The Doc and The Boys
12. Alec and Edith: Indianapolis Benefactors
13. A Legacy: In Others’ Eyes
Appendix I: Publications of George Henry Alexander Clowes
Appendix II: Chronology of Ancestry
Works Cited

What People are Saying About This

author of The Discovery of Insulin - Michael Bliss

This well-researched book celebrates the lives of George H. A. and Edith Clowes. GHA Clowes’ advanced research made Eli Lilly and Company a world leader in the development of insulin and played a critical role in Lilly's development into a global pharmaceutical company.

author of Breakthrough: Elizabeth Hughes, the Discovery of Insulin, and the Making of a Medical Mira - Thea Cooper

The Doc and the Duchess is a must-read for anyone interested in drug development, medical history, and diabetes. Clowes gives us a thorough, compelling, and important book, offering unprecedented insight into his grandfather, whose extraordinary gift for inspiring scientists to work together long predated modern concepts of networking and teambuilding. The letters, interviews, and family lore illuminate an original thinker with a personality as irresistible on the page as it must have been in person.

author of Maclure of New Harmony - Leonard Warren

A delight to read—well written and authoritative. This is an insider's story, lovingly told.

M.D., Professor of Medicine and Diabetes Treatment and Teaching Chair, University of Washington Scho - Irl B. Hirsch

This is a fascinating story about an incredible man, his wife, and his family. Everyone interested in the early days after the discovery of insulin will want to read this book.

author of The Great Experiment - Strobe Talbott

Vividly told, the book captures the personalities of the protagonists, contains scientifically sophisticated explanations about the development of marketable insulin, and invokes the evolving environment—economic, medical, social, and familial—in which the story takes place.

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