Lives of the fellows

Joseph Stanley Mitchell

b.22 July 1909 d.22 February 1987
CBE(1951) BA Cantab(1931) MB BChir(1934) MA(1935) PhD(1937) DMR(RCS 1943) FRS(1952) FFR(1954) MRCP(1956) MD(1957) FRCP(1958) FRCR(1975) Hon DSc Birm(1958)

Joseph Mitchell was born in Birmingham, where he spent his early years. The son of a schoolmaster, he was educated at Yardley Road Council School and King Edward’s High School, Birmingham. Although he started his medical education at the University of Birmingham medical school in 1926, he won a scholarship to St John’s College, Cambridge, in 1928 and pursued his studies there. He was awarded first class honours in Part 2 of the natural sciences tripos in physics. Lord Rutherford [Munk's Roll, Vol.V, p.362] advised him to return to Birmingham to complete his clinical training, which he did.

He became house physician to K D Wilkinson [Munk’s Roll, Vol.V, p.548] at the hospital where he had trained. His success in physics, and his great interest in the physics of radiation, led to his appointment to a Beit Memorial fellowship which he held at the Colloid Science Laboratory, Cambridge, under Sir Eric Rideal FRS. Joseph Mitchell was elected to a fellowship of St John’s College, and under Sir Eric he investigated the effects of irradiation on protein mono-layers, obtaining his PhD.

Mitchell’s flair for physics was already determining his subsequent clinical career. He was appointed radiological officer at the Christie Hospital and the Holt Radium Institute in Manchester in 1937. A year later, he pursued his interest in radiotherapy as assistant in research to the regius professor of physic, J A Ryle, [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IV,p.595] in the new department of medicine at Cambridge.

With the outbreak of war, he was installed as radiotherapist to the Emergency Medical Service in Cambridge. In 1943 he was sent to Montreal in charge of medical investigations at the National Research Council Laboratories where the British and Canadian Atomic Energy project was sited. He later described his horror when he found that no one was taking care of the medical protection of the workers. He decided that the quickest way to make the laboratory safe was to order that a foot of concrete be laid over the entire laboratory floor. He stayed there until the end of the war, not only ensuring that those who worked with uranium took proper precautions but also studying the biological effects of radiation, including the action of neutrons.

It was at that time that he realized the value of the gamma-emitting isotope cobalt-60 in the possible treatment of cancer. His recommendation led to its worldwide use. After the war he returned to Cambridge where he was elected to the new chair of radiotherapeutics, which he held with distinction from 1946 until he was invited to be regius professor of physic in 1957. It was during that time that he became internationally known for his work on radiotherapeutics and the treatment of cancer. In 1952 the Royal Society elected him to their fellowship.

Mitchell was director of the radiotherapeutics centre of Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge, and concentrated on clinically orientated research. His determination to find more effective ways of treating patients with cancer was the stimulus to his exploring new lines of approach including the high energy x-rays generated by the synchrotron which, as a result of his pioneering spirit, he had had installed in his department. For the last 20 years of his life he concentrated on the idea of finding molecules which would specifically seek out cancer cells. He then endowed the molecules with radioactivity to destroy the cells which took them up. He stuck rigidly to the concept and developed the radioactive analogue of vitamin K, Synkavit, but it must be said that the number of successes he had - though sometimes dramatic - fell far short of his hopes.

At the time when Joseph Mitchell was appointed regius professor of physic in 1957 he immediately took up the advice of the Goodenough Report that Cambridge should build up a postgraduate school of medicine so as to establish the academic basis for a subsequent clinical school. It was unfortunate that the precise number of six chairs was quoted as this was subsequently used to limit the growth of the postgraduate school. Although, in 1963, he was a signatory to the university report that said they did not envisage Cambridge having a clinical school to add to its renowned preclinical school, he did give energetic support once the new professor of medicine (the establishment of whose chair he had organized) launched an attempt in 1965 to get the idea of such a school accepted.

Joseph Mitchell was essentially a kind and gentle man, but he was aggressive in his dedication to treat his patients. His compassion sometimes led him to tears when he found that his treatment failed to cure their cancers. He showed the same concern and kindness to all his staff, and it was this quality which made it difficult for him to chair with an authoritative approach the board of the faculty of medicine when he was regius professor of physic. As a result, his colleagues voted for an outside chairman, much to Mitchell’s dismay. He was treated similarly when the university set up the clinical school planning committee without including him on it, at a time when the Todd commission recommended that Cambridge should have a clinical school. It took the combined efforts of the three clinical professors to force the university to install all three of them on it. Nevertheless, in 1974 Joe made the enormously generous gesture of offering to resign from the regius chair so that a new regius professor of physic could be in the post in 1975, a year before the clinical school was to have its first intake of students. He then reverted to the professorship of radiotherapeutics until he retired in 1976. After retirement, true to his real role as a scientist, he continued his research and trained PhD students until a short time before his death.

In 1934 Joseph Mitchell had married Lilian Mary Buxton MB ChB, who was some eight years his senior. They had two children, a boy and a girl. Mary Mitchell devoted her life to supporting her husband at work as well as at home. In addition, she did great work on her own account as medical adviser to the Cambridge Association for Social Welfare. She inherited her father’s outfitting business, and Joseph helped her direct it.

In 1958 Joseph Mitchell was both Dunham lecturer at Harvard, USA, and Withering lecturer at Birmingham. He was awarded the Pirogoff medal of the USSR Academy of Medical Sciences in 1967, and was Sylvanus Thompson lecturer of the British Institute of Radiology in 1968. In 1970 he was appointed honorary consultant to the Atomic Energy Authority, and he was appointed Linacre lecturer at St John’s College, Cambridge, later that same year. The latter led to the publication of his book Cancer: if curable, why not cured?, Cambridge (Eng), Heffer, 1971. His previous book was Studies in radiotherapeutics, Oxford, Blackwell Scientific Publications, 1960. In 1965 he edited Treatment of cancer with special reference to radiotherapy and chemotherapy, Cambridge (Eng), Cambridge University Press.

Mitchell was an honorary member of the German Roentgen Society and a foreign fellow of the Indian National Academy of Sciences. He was a founder member of the English section of the Anglo-German Medical Society and president from 1959-68. He spoke and wrote fluently in German, which was no doubt related to the fact that he had a German grandfather. Each year he spent some time in laboratories in Freiburg, and while there he and his wife often took the opportunity to pursue his main hobby of walking.

It may be surprising to some that Joseph Mitchell took an active part in local politics,and for a time was president of the South-east Cambridgeshire Liberal Association.

Mary Mitchell died in 1983, but his two children survived him. He left behind an enormous army of appreciative patients, not only because of his dedicated clinical, social and psychological care but also for the improvements in the treatment of cancer to which he had devoted his life.

IH Mills

[The Times, 24 Feb 1987; Lancet, 1987,1,639; Biog.Mems.roy.Soc., 34,583-607; Contemporary Scientific Archives Centre,Progress Report No.25,1985-86]

(Volume VIII, page 345)

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