Hubert Catchpole, 1906-2006. Professor at University of Illinois Medical Center.
As you can see from his dates, Hubert Catchpole lived to be nearly 100, and he spent most of his life in the United States. Yet he grew up in Whitlingham (see my blog of February 3 2012) by the river Yare in Norfolk. He was born in London in 1906 to an unmarried mother; such was the disgrace felt by the rich family he was given away soon after birth to a childless couple in Norfolk. They were simple country folk. He never had any contact with or support from his biological family.
Growing up in the small hamlet of Whitlingham he attended the local school at Trowse. My Great Aunt Thurza became a teacher by the apprenticeship system, and she and a friend started a Sunday School in Trowse and young Hubert attended. She soon recognized his genius and encouraged him to pursue an education. Hubert became a firm friend of the family and he stayed on close terms – despite the distance separating them – with my father for the rest of his life. Thurza died before he left Cambridge. Money was always tight when he was growing up, but during the First World War he found he could earn something by collecting horse chestnuts which are a source of the drug Aesculin.
Instead of leaving education at the end of compulsory schooling he went on the City of Norwich School, the City’s first state run grammar school. When my son was considering his options for secondary school in 1998 we went to CNS (by then a comprehensive school). There was Hubert’s name on the rather battered Honours Board, for his scholarship to Cambridge University. It was one of the early names on the board; at that time he still had several years to live.
He got a double first in biochemistry at Cambridge in 1928. Two years later he moved to the University of California where he got a Phd in 1933. He then taught at Yale (1936 – 1943) until the Second World War. Having become a US citizen he joined the Navy and spent the war researching the bends – decompression sickness in divers. In 1946 upon demobilisation he moved to Chicago as Professor of pathology and histology. He published more than 130 academic articles, the last in 2005.
He returned to England in the 1950s. Flight was by then a way of crossing the Atlantic, but it was long before the jet age made it commonplace. Piston engined planes were the height of luxury, and air travel was for the few. When my sister went to live in Canada upon her marriage in 1959 she went by sea. Taking off from Idlewild airport New York (now John F. Kennedy) the journey necessitated touching down for refuelling at at least two out of Newfoundland, Keflavik (Iceland) and Shannon (Ireland) before landing at Heathrow. Hubert had not been back to England since leaving for America in 1928, although he had kept in touch with his friends including my father. In those days this meant writing letters, which he continued to do. Every year he sent my parents a Christmas card of a modern artistic nature which always arrived in late January or early February – he didn’t post them until the New Year. During the 1960s he was a regular traveller to Europe and Israel (he was fluent in four languages), and always fitted in a visit to Whitlingham and Poringland when he was able.
His interest were wide; I have a cutting he sent on Jenny Lind, a nineteenth century operatic singer with a particular connection with Norwich, where she financed a children’s hospital. Classical music was another of his passions, but he would also ask my father about optical questions. In spite of his own great learning he never made you feel small.
My sister Margaret (Tiggie) stayed with him in the US in the early 1960s, and was slightly shocked to find him living an agreeably bohemian existence. She recalled him and his friend entertaining people to a barbecue where the meat was cooked mostly on burnt newspaper, and washed down with gin. It gives a slightly more human view of Hubert; his was not an entirely cerebral life.
He was over 60 when he married a graduate student half his age. This was a surprise to most people who assumed he was a confirmed bachelor. By all accounts his marriage to Robin Miller was a happy one. She was certainly equally devoted to the acquisition of knowledge. The last time I saw him was when he called on my parents in Poringland to introduce us to his new young wife. She died of breast cancer at the age of 50 in 1996. She was posthumously awarded her Phd. I never saw Hubert after my parents died in 1977, but my cousin Andrew called on him in Chicago when he was in his nineties.
My sister Christine adds:
I heard that Aunt Thurza went and argued with the Norwich City Council who were going to deny him his scholarship as he was “only a labourer’s son.” If Thurza was anything like Nannie they were in for a shock!
After his wife died, Hubert reached out to his old connections. He wanted
Tiggie and me to visit him in Chicago. We couldn’t manage that but invited
him instead to spend a weekend with us here in Calgary– Tig was staying
with me at the time. This was in 1998, and at that time he was still fit
and up for anything. We lent him heavy sweaters and took him up to the
Rockie mountains– the Kananaskis Country— where he tried the French
Canadian specialty, poutine. He was very kind, encouraging me in my
scholarship and taking an interest in my publications.