Charles Dent was born in Burgos, Spain. He was the son of Franklin Dent, who studied chemistry in Leeds before acquiring his PhD in Munich and later working in Spain, where he met his wife. Charles’ mother was Carmen Colsa De Mira y Perceval who came from a well established Spanish family. In 1915 the family settled in Bedford where Charles received his early education. Later they moved to Wimbledon where Charles went to Wimbledon College, a Jesuit foundation. In 1927 he left school and was first employed as a bank clerk in Tottenham Court Road, but he did not enjoy this work and decided to study chemistry.
He left the bank, obtained a post as laboratory technician and studied at evening classes in the Regent Street Polytechnic. In 1930 he was admitted to Imperial College as a student in chemistry, graduating with first-class honours in 1931 and proceeding immediately to a PhD with a thesis on copper phthalocyanin, a blue pigment resembling haem, which he wrote in 1933. In 1937 he entered University College London as a medical student. His clinical studies were interrupted several times by the war but he completed his course in 1944. In the same year, he became house physician to Sir Thomas Lewis, obtained the MRCP in 1945 and was appointed assistant to the medical unit at University College Hospital Medical School.
His war service was varied and distinguished. He served in France, was besieged at Arras, mentioned in despatches, and evacuated unharmed from Dunkirk. He returned to his medical studies, but was recalled by the War Office and appointed consultant in chemistry. He worked in the scientific department of the British censorship, where his chemical knowledge helped in the detection of secret chemical messages, and was of value in uncovering a spy ring. While involved in this work he was sent to Bermuda, where he met his future wife, Margaret Ruth Coad, the daughter of an Anglican clergyman who was also working in the intelligence field. They married in 1944, the year he qualified in medicine.
After the war he engaged at once in clinical research, initially in the field of amino acid metabolism. He appreciated the enormous possibilities of partition chromatography, then a new technique, for the study of biological fluids and the elucidation of clinical metabolic disorders. He was a pioneer in this field and helped to define a number of ‘inborn errors of metabolism’. In 1946 he was awarded a Rockefeller scholarship and studied for a year in Whipple’s department in Rochester, NY, USA, where he became impressed by the opportunities, in terms of quantitative measurements, afforded by a metabolic ward. He persuaded his hospital to set up a metabolic ward in 1951. Colleagues now scattered all over the world remember the excitement and stimulus which for the next quarter of a century flowed from his work in this ward at University College Hospital.
During these years he was appointed reader in medicine in 1951, and professor of human metabolism in 1956. By 1953 his research interests had broadened to include the study of clinical disorders of calcium and phosphorus metabolism. He soon developed from a laboratory scientist, who was principally interested in the biochemical manifestations of disease, to a clinician for whom the study of the diseases as such, and the welfare of the patients, were the chief considerations. These patients came to be numbered among his many admirers. He was a gifted teacher who was both liked and respected by his students. He did not take lovingly to committees, though he played an important part in the general activities of his school and hospital. He received many honours and distinctions, being elected FRCP in 1954 and FRS in 1962, the year in which he gave the Humphry Davy Rolleston lecture.
He received the Gairdner Foundation award in 1965 and was made an honorary MD of Louvain in 1966 and of Uppsala in 1974. In the 1976 New Year’s Honours List he was appointed CBE.
His remarkable qualities of tenacity and strength of character sustained him superbly during a long illness. Almost to the end he found the energy to play squash, which he enjoyed so much. Other beloved hobbies included wine-making and viniculture, for he grew his own grapes.
Charles Dent and his wife had five daughters, and one son who followed a medical career.
† The list of honorary degrees is too lengthy to include in entirety.
[Brit.med.J., 1976, 2, 88; Lancet, 1976, 2, 813, 918; Times, 21 Sept 1976; Biogr.Mem.Roy.Soc., 1978, 24, 15-31]