Lives of the fellows

Allan Jacobs

b.13 September 1929 d.27 April 1993
MB BS Lond(1952) MD(1958) MRCPath(1963) MRCP(1971) FRCPath(1974) FRCP(1976)

Allan Jacobs was born in London of Polish parents. His father, Morris Jacobs, was a broker. He was educated at Ilford County High School and University College London, and undertook his clinical studies at University College Medical School. In 1953 he began his National Service as a regimental medical officer in the RAMC. He married Rita Rigby in the same year and they subsequently had two children.

In 1957 he was appointed lecturer in haematology at Charing Cross Hospital Medical School, moving to St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, in 1958, as senior registrar. In 1962 he took up a post at the Welsh National School of Medicine, Cardiff, as senior lecturer in haematology and he remained in Cardiff for the rest of his life. In 1970 he was appointed to the first professorship in haematology at the University of Wales, just before the opening of the new medical teaching centre at Heath Park, which was to change medical teaching and research in Wales beyond recognition. But the planners of the new hospital and medical school, working in the 1960s, had made little provision for haematology and there was no space provided for a blood bank. Undaunted by this inauspicious start, Allan Jacobs began to construct what eventually became the most comprehensive department in the UK. It covered clinical, laboratory and academic activities; the staff included medical, scientific and other grades and research interests included anaemia and iron metabolism, thrombosis, haemophilia and leukaemia. When Allan joined the section of haematology in 1962 there was a senior lecturer, a lecturer, a registrar (blood transfusion) and ten technicians. When he retired in 1991 the staff numbered over ninety. Yet Allan Jacobs was not primarily an administrator, he was a true academic - widely read and with a real curiosity about medicine, biology, literature, art, music and politics. He had considerable ability to develop ideas, plan experimental work, and write.

He began his research with a topic that included two themes which also characterized his later research interests - the epidemiology of disease and premalignant conditions; this was the condition known as the Patterson-Kelly syndrome, which is marked by iron deficiency and a post-cricoid web which may become malignant. He collaborated with the MRC epidemiological research unit in South Wales in studying the incidence of anaemia and iron deficiency and realized the need to understand the regulation of iron absorption and the control of iron balance. A detailed analysis of iron transport within the intestinal epithelial cell complemented studies of whole body iron metabolism using 59Fe as a tracer. These iron-kinetic studies led to the development of mathematical models of iron turnover. The cellular studies demonstrated the importance of the iron storage protein, ferritin, and it was this work which has had the widest influence on haematological practice. The assay for serum ferritin provided, for the first time, a convenient and useful indicator of the level of body iron stores. Not only was its clinical potential exploited but the biochemistry and physiology of tissue and cellular ferritins were investigated. At the same time, this interest in storage iron expanded to include the development of new chelators for the treatment of iron overload. Gradually this broadened to a real curiosity about the control of haem synthesis in the red cell, then to erythropoiesis and finally to dyserythropoiesis, and the earliest manifestations of leukaemia in patients with myelodysplasia.

In his last five years as professor of haematology, Allan set up the preleukaemia unit funded by the Leukaemia Research Fund in order to combine cytogenetic, cellular and molecular investigations with the clinical study of the progression of myelodysplasia. Allan exploited the new biology with enthusiasm, yet retained his interest in the aetiology of disease and, in particular, the role of industrial exposure to toxic compounds. His last project was a nation-wide survey of the contribution of environmental factors to leukaemogenesis, a project he continued after his appointment as honorary professor in the department of public health at the University of Wales College of Medicine (UWCM). He was a fluent and effective teacher, as much appreciated by international audiences as by medical students. He contributed fully to the administration of the UWCM, as a member of the senate and other committees, although he never seemed to enjoy such activities and never sought power through this route. He was an active member of the Royal College of Pathologists and a vice-president. He particularly supported the role of the clinical scientist, something he put into practice in his own department.

He was also a very successful editor of the British Journal of Haematology for three years, and succeeded Sir John Dacie as the second chairman of the editorial board in 1980. He was largely responsible for setting up the British Journal of Haematology Research Trust, with the object of ensuring that some of the profits made by the BJH for Blackwell Scientific Publications were returned to British haematology to support research and education. The Trust has made it possible for many young haematologists to attend international meetings and to visit other laboratories to acquire new skills and understanding. Allan also established the Blood Research Fund in Cardiff, which has not only contributed to medical research and education but provided a travelling scholarship for young researchers, and support for patient groups.

Perhaps one of Allans greatest talents was the ability to recognize that when he had completed all he could usefully do in a particular area, then it was time to move on. Once the decision was made, all the trappings of the previous preoccupation were left behind and he started again. In his thinking, Allan was a socialist. He campaigned against nuclear weapons, was a strong supporter of trade unions, and was a member of the Association of University Teachers all his working life. He was a fervent defender of the NHS as the provider of health care for all, whether rich or poor.

On retirement from full academic life he studied for a degree in photography at the College of Art in Newport. He encouraged a fellow student to compile a photographic journal of his cancer treatment and a photographic essay on sickle cell disease, which he supervised. Working with Allan was always challenging and interesting because his enthusiasm and knowledge extended beyond science. He made many friends during his visits abroad and many were entertained at his home in Penylan, Cardiff. He and his wife Rita regularly invited members of the department to their parties and included all staff, medical, scientific, technical and secretarial, which was greatly appreciated.

M Worwood

[Bull.Roy.Coll.Path., 1993,84,8]

(Volume X, page 252)

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