Lives of the fellows

Eric Neil

b.15 February 1916 d.8 May 1990
BSc Leeds(1939) MB ChB(1942) MD(1944) DSc(1953) FRCP(1978) Hon MD Ghent(1977)

Eric Neil was born in Maryport, Cumbria, the son of George Neil MC BSc, an inspector of schools. He attended Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, Darlington and Heath Grammar School, Halifax, before entering Leeds University where his early flair for physiology was to determine his career. Following eight years in Leeds University as demonstrator and lecturer, he moved to the Middlesex Hospital medical school. In 1956 he succeeded Samson Wright [Munk's Roll, Vol.V, p.463] in the John Astor chair of physiology, from which he retired in 1984.

As teacher, investigator and administrator his services to his subject were legion. Whether in the formal atmosphere of the lecture theatre or the more intimate ambience of the seminar room, his impact was unmistakable. Forthright in manner, with a ready but never unkind wit, his teaching was always well received. Year after year, the number of students wishing to continue in his department, to complete the extra year for the BSc degree in physiology, far exceeded the places available. The record of their achievement was second to none in the University of London. Eric took great pleasure in the fact that seven of his protégés became professors, five of physiology and two of medicine.

As a research worker he seemed tireless and there were few days when he was not to be found in his laboratory. His manual dexterity was of a very high order and to witness him at work on a single nerve fibre preparation was utterly absorbing. He was best known for his studies on the mechanism of excitation of arterial baroreceptors and chemoreceptors and their part in the control of the circulation. This was a field in which for more than 30 years he made important observations - observations valuable in themselves but equally in the stimulus they gave to fellow workers in Europe and the United States. Indeed, to be known as a colleague of Eric Neil was to be given a status in the USA well beyond one’s deserts.

In the early days of open-heart surgery his series of papers, with Brewin and Nashat as co-authors, made clear the changes in acid-base balance during hypothermia, findings that were of crucial importance when induced hypothermia was essential for surgery to be undertaken. To recall those papers is to be reminded that he was ever aware of the importance of physiology in clinical thinking and management. To see him take part in a clinical demonstration to preclinical students was to realize that physiology’s gain was clinical medicine’s loss.

Of his books Reflexogenic areas of the cardiovascular system, London, OUP, 1958, written in collaboration with Corneille Heymans, and Circulation, New York, OUP, 1971, with Björn Folkow as co-author, will remain valuable works of reference for many years. He contributed chapters to the prestigious Handbook of physiology published by the American Physiological Society and was also editor of and contributor to the Handbook of sensory physiology. That he should write William Harvey and the circulation of the blood, London, Priory Press, 1975 was wholly appropriate for he ever delighted in paying tribute to the contributions made by Harvey [Munks Roll, Vol.l, p.124], Claude Bernard and Sir Charles Sherrington [Munks Roll, Vol.IV, p.523], to our understanding of the living body. On the death of Samson Wright [Munks Roll, Vol.V, p.463] fears were expressed that his justly famed Applied physiology would go out of print; fortunately Neil was prevailed upon and for 24 years, through four new editions, he and Middlesex colleagues saw to it that this most useful book lived on.

As administrator and man of affairs he proved a most efficient honorary treasurer of the Physiological Society as he did, later, for the International Union of Physiological Sciences. Then followed the high honour of the presidency of the IUPS, a position he occupied for six years having been elected, uniquely, for a second term of office. The success of his presidency can be measured by his being called upon to represent the International Union in Moscow at the 250th anniversary celebrations of the foundation of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

In his leisure hours he took great pleasure in music, mainly classical but he also enjoyed New Orleans jazz, and from their earliest days he recognized the great talent of The Beatles. Playing the piano was for Eric very important and in truth he played very well, if latterly a touch too loudly. The pictorial art of Venice drew him back there year after year and it was strangely moving to hear the critical, uncompromising scientist speaking with unconcealed feeling and considerable knowledge of these treasures of the past. He also enjoyed golf and in his day could score well, but cricket was his greater love; at club level he had been a useful fast bowler but his special hero was a spinner - Wilfred Rhodes - about whom he would talk the sun down the sky.

For more than 40 years Eric was very happily married to Anne, née Parker, who had been one of his students in Leeds. Although herself a busy physician in the field of community medicine, Anne supported Eric to the full and whenever possible accompanied him on his visits overseas. Many of the friends made on these occasions found their way as visiting scientists to the UK and so to the Neil’s home in London were they found a warm welcome and superb hospitality, dispensed by Anne, Eric and their two daughters.

Throughout his life Eric drove himself hard - too hard - but for others he was the soul of consideration. In his department, which ran like a well-oiled machine, there was a true esprit de corps each member of the staff seeing him or herself as one of a team blessed with an excellent captain. Certainly there were times when he could be impatient, even irascible, but by nature Eric Neil was a very kind man and scrupulously fair. To have been his colleague was one of life’s extras.

Eldred Walls

[The Times, 17 May 1990; Daily Telegraph, 11 May 1990; Bulletin et Mémoires de I'Académie royal de Medicine de Belgique, 1990,145,385; Middx.Hosp.J., Jan 1985,85 (l);Apr 1967,67 (2)1]

(Volume IX, page 385)

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