Lives of the fellows

John Nathaniel Cumings

b.4 October 1905 d.22 August 1974
MRCS LRCP(1927) MB BS Lond(1928) MRCP(1930) MD(1931) FRCP(1953) FRCPath(1963)

John Nathaniel Cumings, a violin maker, and his wife Kathleen, daughter of James Aylott, a builder. He was educated at Ealing County School and King’s College, London, where he qualified in 1927, and where he began his career as a clinical pathologist in 1929 after completing house and laboratory appointments. He also served as pathologist to Wembley Hospital from 1932-58, where he was greatly esteemed by his colleagues. In 1933 he began a lifetime of service to the National Hospital, Queen Square, as assistant pathologist to T.G.Greenfield. He was one of the first to recognize the importance of biochemistry in neurology. When the second world war ended in 1945, Cumings was appointed clinical pathologist while Greenfield continued his neuro-pathological work. Thereafter the two of them, in collaboration , were free to concentrate on their fast developing specialties. He proceeded MD in 1931 and was elected a Fellow of the College in 1953.

John Cumings spanned the important period of rapid growth in hospital pathology from the day of the all-rounder to that of the specialised scientist to be found in university hospitals today. But he never lost that broad outlook which was to become so important an asset in his career as a teacher and researcher. When the Medical School of the National Hospital became the Institute of Neurology in the University of London in 1958, Cumings became the Professor of Clinical Pathology. He had two main tasks: to build up his new academic unit as well as fostering the development of the Institute as a whole. He was heavily involved in the rebuilding programme both of the hospital and institute, a most time-consuming task beset by a variety of problems, not the least of which were delays due to changes in Government policy, financial stringency and industrial unrest. He was not a man to be discouraged by difficulties however; he was a determined individual and his life was well organized. And he succeeded in clearing the way for the establishment of a specialized department of neurochemistry which came with his retirement.

John Cumings’s major fields of interest were the cerebral lipidoses, the muscular dystrophies, and the intoxications caused by heavy metals. He established a major research group on muscular dystrophy at Queen Square and organized research on migraine. He served as chairman of the research committee of the Muscular Dystrophy Group and was a trustee and secretary of the medical advisory council of the Migraine Trust. He contributed much to both these charities. He was a foundation fellow of the Royal College of Pathologists; president of the Association of Clinical Pathologists from 1956-60, where he gave the triennial foundation lecture, and one time president of the section of neurology of the Royal Society of Medicine where he gave the Hughlings Jackson Lecture in 1971.

Cumings was a world figure in neurological science, a prolific writer and a successful editor, widely respected for his scholarship and professional opinion. His most striking scientific contribution was his use of BAL (dimercaptol) in the treatment of Wilson’s disease, on which he published a memorable paper in 1951.

In 1940 he married Mary Phyllis, daughter of Philip Maxey Parish and herself a medical practitioner. They had two children, a son and a daughter. John Cumings was a man of the highest moral standards and a devout Christian. He devoted a great deal of his time and energies to the Baptist Union and Baptist Missionary Society, and it was typical of him that unkown to almost anyone he actively helped in the escape of colleagues from Nazi Germany. Thoughtful always, and loyal, he never declined or avoided a responsibility.

Sir Gordon Wolstenholme
V Luniewska

[Brit.med.J., 1974, 3, 632 & 4, 235; Lancet, 1974, 2, 603; Times, 26 Aug 1974]

(Volume VI, page 129)

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