Lives of the fellows

John Herbert Humphrey

b.6 December 1916 d.25 December 1987
CBE(1970) BA Cantab(1931) MB BChir(1940) MD(1947) FRS(1963) FRCP(1971)

John Humphrey was born in West Byfleet. His father was one of seven children of the town clerk of Finsbury, London, who attended the Finsbury Technical College and became the chief engineer and later the consulting chemical engineer to ICI. One of his aunts was also an industrial chemist. John himself was the senior scholar (aulae praefectus) at Winchester and subsequently a governor. His interest in science, his desire to study medicine - and not engineering - as a humanitarian activity, and his concern for the welfare of others, were established there and were much influenced by R L M (Dick) Synge. He went to Trinity College, Cambridge, and obtained his BA in 1937. Like many of his generation, he was moved by the desire for a better society to join the Communist party, but left at the time of the German-Russian pact in 1939. He met his wife, who later became a child psychiatrist, at University College Hospital, her father was the Foulerton research professor of physiology at University College and a Nobel Laureate. Her maternal grandfather, a Nobel prize winner, was J N Keynes; she was a niece of Sir Geoffrey Keynes [Munk's Roll, Vol.VII, p.319], and a great niece of Sir Walter Langdon-Brown [Munk's Roll, Vol.IV, p.491]. John Humphrey became a close friend of his father-in-law, A V Hill, who was president of the Academic Assistance Council which helped Jewish academic refugees from the Nazi persecution, and in due course John became president of its successor, the Society for the Protection of Sciences and Learning, from 1978-87.

John worked with Charles R Harington [Munk's Roll, Vol.VI, p.222], as a medical student on the immunogenicity of tyrosyl-proteins, and showed an interest in chemistry unusual in British biologists. He graduated from University College Hospital medical school in 1940 and was so fascinated by research that he boasted that he did the minimal work necessary to pass. He was a houseman at the Hammersmith Hospital, and was the Jenner research student at the Lister Institute, 1941-42. His work at the Institute may explain his lasting interest in polysaccharides which led to his discovery of the thymus independent antibody response. He was assistant pathologist at the Central Middlesex Hospital from 1943-46, covering all branches of pathology, and was in sympathy with the medical director, Horace Joules [Munk's Roll, Vol.VII, p.307]. John showed that mixing procaine with penicillin slowed absorption and his notes printed for the nurses subsequently prevented an American patent. His MD thesis, 1946, was on ‘The aetiology of pneumonia in North West London 1942-44’. He joined the external staff of the Medical Research Council as a bacteriologist at University College Hospital in 1946. He remembered the greater cooperation that existed between the clinic and the laboratory at the Central Middlesex.

John then joined the National Institute of Medical Research at Hampstead (division of biological standards) where he established, with J W Lightbown, many international standards for antibiotics. He then moved to the Mill Hill site and founded the division of immunology in 1957. He regarded a division which started with two scientists, (Dr B A (Eta) Askonas and Dr Brigid Balfour, who had also been at Cambridge) two technicians and space for 1-2 visiting workers as large enough to be viable. There was no need to submit a detailed scientific programme to the MRC as the philosophy was to support good scientists. He was deputy director of the NIMR, 1961-76, and acting director following Sir Peter Medawar’s (q.v.) stroke in 1969. The substantive post was given to a ‘tougher’ man. In 1975, John was professor of immunology at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School, Hammersmith, and emeritus professor in 1981. He studied follicular dendritic cells and antigen presentation and also supervised the department of haematology.

The postwar era was an outstanding time at the NIMR. There was a renaissance of immunology and John embodied the pioneering feeling of the period. He liked to work at the interface between immunology and other sciences. By way of example, studies with K F (Frank) Austen showed that crosslinking of antibody on the surface of the mast cell caused histamine release; work with Stephen Black showed that the erythema of the tuberculin skin reaction could be inhibited by hypnotic suggestion. His key approaches were the importance of quantitation, the use of radioactive and later fluorescent labels for determining the distribution of antigens, and a liking for microscopy. His interest in the localization of antigen in germinal centres led to collaboration with Michael Sela of the Weizmann Institute, Israel. He found that the antibody response to a random amino acid copolymer differed in Sandylops and Himalayan rabbits. A visiting worker interested in genetics, Hugh O McDevitt, followed up this observation which led to his pioneering work on immune response genes and their relation to transplantation antigens. Overall, John Humphrey was intellectually generous, did not seek credit for himself and encouraged openness in those around him. He liked medically trained workers and had a flair for collaboration.

As head of division, he helped members of the department to look for important questions and elegant approaches. The number of papers was entirely unimportant. He helped scientists find and develop their own areas of interest, and their own approaches, rather than learn a set of techniques or contribute to the long term themes of the department. He enjoyed and elicited lively discussion, often over coffee at the bench, but had little liking for regular departmental presentations. His experience with biological standards caused him to produce, and persuade members of his department to produce antibodies and to undertake quantitative precipitation curves. The sera were freeze dried and were valuable ‘scientific presents’. He preferred to make reagents rather than purchase them, and this reflected the limited range and quality of biological reagents commercially available.

John’s advice to members of the department who wanted to know what to do next was - to experiment and find out. For him science was fun, both intellectually in designing elegant experiments and discussing exciting ideas, and practically as he enjoyed working with his hands and was a gifted experimentalist. His approach was not primarily theoretical and he emphasized the role of serendipity in biology, i.e. observations made casually at the bench. He had an enormous breadth of knowledge. John was one of the last of the ‘general’ immunologists able to work usefully in many areas of immunology and proud of his range. He was an excellent discussant at meetings and went out of his way to talk to and advise young scientists. The financial stringency and the changing political scene of the ’70s made this general approach less popular, but it is not clear that the more directed ‘value for money’ research of the ’80s provides a better method for studying natural phenomena. His scientific standing was recognized by the Royal Society in 1963, by the College in 1971, and by the US National Academy of Science in 1986. He was an honorary member of several societies including the South African Society of Pathology, 1975; the Purkinje Medical Society of Czechoslovakia, 1977, and the Hungarian Society for Immunology, 1981.

John Humphrey regarded the advancement of immunology as very important. Together with Robin A Coombs, he started the British Society for Immunology as a splinter group from the Pathological Society. He was coeditor and assistant editor of Immunology for 10 years. His interest in Eastern Europe facilitated the meeting on the Mechanisms of Antibody Formation in Prague, 1959. His international interests also led him to serve on the WHO expert committee on biological standardization and immunology. He was president of the International Union of Immunological Societies, and chairman of the organizing committee for the Second International Congress of Immunology in Great Britain, 1974. He was also chairman of the advisory board of the Basle Institute for Immunology. He served as secretary of the standing committee on safeguards of the pursuit of science of the International Council of Scientific Unions. John placed great value on his work for peace, but he was not a pacifist. He took part in the second Aldermaston March, and other activities of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). He was also president of the Medical Campaign against Nuclear Weapons, and wrote against bacteriological and chemical warfare. He repeatedly wrote and acted on behalf of Russian, South American, and other scientists and doctors who had been badly treated.

John had developed pulmonary tuberculosis during the war and initially attributed severe deafness due to bilateral acoustic neuroma to a delayed effect of streptomycin. Fortunately he had a robust constitution and would work indefatigably even when he had a fever. He was at peace with himself, and had time for many things and for many people. Some time after his brother’s death he became a ward of his nephew and niece, and later brought up his nephew with his own five children. He remained active until two days before his death on Christmas Day, continuing to work with a technician and to make observations on the localization of acidic and neutral polysaccharides in the antigen presenting cells of the spleen. John’s strong feeling for the world in which we live, his effective desire to help other people, and his sophisticated straightforwardness, provided a model of proper behaviour.

[The Times, 31 Dec 1987; The Independent, 5 Jan 1988;, 1988,296,796; Lancet, 1988,1,193-4; Doctor, 28 Jan 1988,p.32; MRC News, No.39,June 1988,37-8; Medicine and War,A,71-73,1988; Lancet, 1976,1,652;, 1976,1,721; Lancet, 1989,1,115-6]

(Volume VIII, page 230)

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