Hugh Sinclair

The Hugh Sinclair Lecture is currently normally given during the autumn meeting of the Society, by an established scientist judged by the Society to have made a notable contribution to knowledge of atherosclerosis or thrombosis.
Dr Hugh Sinclair (1910 – 1990) was a nutritionist and a founder member of the Atherosclerosis Discussion Group (the forerunner of this Society). He enjoyed fine wines, fast cars, and was an astute collector of rare and historical medical texts. He never achieved his ambition of a Chair at the University of Oxford, not because of lack of talent, but because of his inability to bow to authority. He was a scientific prophet before his time, but his wayward manner and driving ambition made him difficult to work with. His extensive, detailed and potentially very important records of human nutrition during and after the second world war were never fully analysed and published; the latter part of his career was spent continually struggling to raise money to pursue his research independently at his own International Nutrition Foundation, based in his large house and converted stables in a village outside Oxford.

It is only now that the seminal importance of Hugh Sinclair’s ideas and observations is apparent. He single-handedly championed the links between essential fatty acids (EFA) in the diet and protection from atherosclerosis, thrombosis and other degenerative diseases at a time when EFA had only just been described and long before the discovery of eicosanoids. He published a very long letter to the Editor advancing the hypothesis in The Lancet in 1956 (1), anticipating the controversy it would produce by noting towards the end of the letter (in a style typical of his writings but unusual in scientific discourse) that “You will now conclude, Sir, if indeed you have not done so long ago, that I have strayed into the realms of fantasy”.

Having first examined the diet of Eskimos in the early 1950s and noted their remarkably low incidence of ischaemic heart disease despite a diet consisting almost entirely of fish and seal meat, he visited Greenland in 1976 (at the age of 66) to confirm their plasma lipid profile, and in 1979 embarked on the most notorious of several nutrional self-experiments, eating only seal and fish for 100 days, measuring changes in his plasma lipids and recording the extreme prolongation of his bleeding time (2). Acceptance of the importance of Hugh Sinclair’s findings of the different roles of saturated and unsaturated dietary fatty acids, with invitations for him to speak at international conferences, was just beginning as he approached his eightieth birthday: he died less than six months later. After his death, the assets from the Foundation were used to endow in 1995 the Hugh Sinclair Chair in Human Nutrition at the University of Reading (where he had lectured regularly towards the end of his life), so that although Hugh Sinclair himself had not been promoted beyond Reader in Oxford (a post he achieved in 1947), his Chair lives on.

A full biography of Hugh Sinclair has been published (3), but the most entertaining and informative summary is provided in two articles in 1991, the second of which is by Hugh Sinclair himself and reprinted from an earlier publication (4,5).

  1. Sinclair HM (1956). Deficiency of essential fatty acids and atherosclerosis, etcetera. Lancet i: 381-383.
  2. Sinclair HM (1982). The relative importance of essential fatty acids of the linoleic and linolenic families: studies with an eskimo diet. Progr Lipid Res 20: 897-899.
  3. Ewin J (2002). Fine wines & fish oil. Oxford University Press.
  4. Jukes TH (1991). Hugh Sinclair (1910-1990). J Nutr 121: 1297-1299.
  5. Sinclair HM (1991). Diseases of civilisation and EFA. J Nutr 121: 1299-1304.