Raymond Lewthwaite was born in Kendal, Westmorland, in relatively poor circumstances and, without any medical or academic background to assist him, he achieved great distinction as a medical research worker, a medical research administrator and a most valued adviser to governments. His father, Charles A. Lewthwaite, was a tailor, and his mother, Jane Breaks, came from a similar social background. He always felt deeply indebted to them for the readiness with which they made it possible for him to go to university after getting an academical clerkship (for singing) at Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1914, from Kendal Grammar School, where he had been an able pupil.
It was a comparatively rare event for someone from such a background to succeed in getting to Oxford - and particularly Magdalen College, because the then President, Herbert Warren, was allegedly somewhat snobbish, possibly influenced by the fact that the Duke of Windsor was at Magdalen at the same time as Lewthwaite.
Lewthwaite was a classical scholar and had done no biology when he was accepted but, fortunately for him, Sir Charles Sherrington was then tutor at Magdalen and influenced Lewthwaite in his choice of career. However, the first world war soon broke out and Lewthwaite, like so many of his contemporaries, felt moved to answer the patriotic call to serve in the forces rather than to graduate quickly; he joined the Border Regiment in 1915, serving in India until the end of the war, with the final rank of Captain. He formed a strong attachment to the Regiment and continued to serve in it as a Territorial Army Officer until 1923, when, having graduated from Oxford, he moved to the Middlesex Hospital Medical School, where he obtained the Windham Baring and Leopold Hudson Prizes in pathology.
In 1926, soon after qualifying in medicine, he went to the Institute for Medical Research, Kuala Lumpur, as a research student and quickly and wholeheartedly identified himself with the purposes and aims of the institution. One of his strongest characteristics was his intense loyalty to the bodies that assisted in fashioning his successful career.
His early work at the Institute was with the then Director, William Fletcher, on tropical typhus, a disease which Fletcher had, only two years before, identified among the other tropical fevers of the area. When Fletcher left the following year, Lewthwaite took over the typhus investigations and quickly became a world authority on scrub typhus (an account of his contribution to knowledge in this field is given in the History of the Institute for Medical Research, Kuala Lumpur, and there are excellent summaries in the obituary notices by his later colleague, J.R. Audy, in the British Medical Journal (1972, 2, 298), and by C.E. Gordon Smith in the Lancet (1972,1, 800) who also served at the Institute. Not the least of his contributions was the demonstration that scrub typhus and tsutsugamushi fever were the same disease.
In 1928 Lewthwaite was appointed pathologist and in 1931, senior pathologist, to the Institute. He was twice commended by the Secretary of State for the Colonies for his work, and in 1936 was awarded the North Persian Forces Memorial Award for achievement in medical research.
The Japanese invasion of Malaya in 1942 interrupted the work of the IMR and Lewthwaite was evacuated to Australia by air, at the very last moment, bearing on his lap the precious cultures of typhus. There, at the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories, he and his colleagues attempted the preparation of a vaccine - for the vaccines against louse-borne typhus were ineffective against scrub typhus. The vaccine work made good progress, but Lewthwaite’s return to South-East Asia (Burma) in 1944 as Field Director of the MRC Scrub Typhus Campaign was associated with a change in plans, owing to the development of an effective chemotherapeutic agent - chloramphenicol - against the disease. In collaboration with the Medical Advisory Division of South-East Asia Command, Lewthwaite was responsible for organising the overall campaign against scrub typhus in Burma, and he and J.E. Smadel were responsible in large measure for the success of the campaign.
After the war (1945) Lewthwaite returned to the IMR as Director, tackling, again successfully, the major task of re-establishing the Institute as a foremost tropical medicine research centre. As previously, he served as examiner in various subjects at the College of Medicine, Singapore. In 1949 he was appointed Director of Colonial Medical Research and Secretary of the Colonial Medical Research Committee, which had been set up under the joint auspices of the Colonial Office and the Medical Research Council. With the establishment of the Department of Technical Co-operation (later the Ministry of Overseas Development) and the replacement of the CMRC by the Medical Research Council's Tropical Medicine Board in 1961, his appointment was changed to that of Medical Research Adviser to the Secretary of State, and he held the equivalent position, through various government changes, until his final retirement at the age of 74 in 1968. He was an assessor and subsequently a member of the Tropical Medicine Research Board for many years and also served on the Council of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. In his latter years he was incapacitated by subacute degeneration of the cord, but nevertheless continued to undertake a very full overseas travel programme with great courage and persistence.
His marriage to Gladys, daughter of Harry Johnson of Kendal, was a long and a happy one, ending with her death after a tragically long illness in 1964. His son, Major Julian Lewthwaite, RAMC, is at the time of writing (1972) an Army Health Specialist. He also left a daughter, Celia Malcolm.
[Brit.med.J., 1972, 2, 298; Lancet, 1972, 1, 800; Times, 24 Mar 1972; Inst. Med. Research, Kuala Lumpur, 1900-1950: Fifty years of medical research in Malaya, Gov. Press, Kuala Lumpur, 1951]