Lives of the fellows

Edward Eric (Sir) Pochin

b.22 September 1909 d.29 January 1990
Kt(1975) CBE(1959) MRCS LRCP(1935) MA Cantab(1935) MB Bchir(1936) MRCP(1937) MD(1945) FRCP(1946)

Edward Eric Pochin was born at Sale in Cheshire. His father Charles Davenport Pochin, a mechanical engineer, was drowned soon after he was born. His family had little money but enough to send him to preparatory school where he gained a scholarship to Repton. He went on to St John’s, Cambridge, taking a first in Part I of the natural sciences tripos in 1930, followed by a first in Part II physiology - with a Michael Foster and a Strathcona studentship for 1931-32 which he spent in physiology in Cambridge before going to University College Hospital, London, where he qualified in 1935. He obtained His membership of the College in 1937 and in 1945 he was awarded the Raymond Horton Smith prize for his doctoral thesis. He was elected a Fellow of the College in 1946. He was known formally as Eric, but informally - from student days - as ‘Bill’.

His first appointment was as house physician to Sir Thomas Lewis [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IV.p.531], followed by house surgeon to Wilfred Trotter. It was at this time that he wrote his first publication ‘Relative as donor’, which appeared in The Lancet, about the probability that the blood of a relative would be compatible, and what relationship would be most favourable. The results were theoretical, not experimental, and based on current theories of the inheritance of blood groups. It was a remarkable paper and showed that his style of writing - structure of sentence, phrasing and vocabulary - was already formed, as was the tight if tortuous logic and the fluency of his mathematical reasoning. It contained the essence of the conflict between the mathematical development of an idea and the discipline of using only the results of measurement. For the next 30 years his clinical papers were about physiological or clinical measurement, emphasizing the importance of a quantified approach to clinical judgement but showing his ability in and grasp of mathematical handling of data which later produced his great contributions in the field of radiation protection and hazard.

His interest in Lewis’s approach to medicine began as a student and crystallized when he was a house physician. After his year as a house surgeon, Lewis recruited him to the department of clinical research as an attached worker. In 1937, when applying to the MRC for Pochin to become a member of the Council’s scientific staff, Lewis wrote ‘. . . a man I have had under close supervision for four years. Pochin has unusual ability and a strong desire to enter the field of clinical science.’

Lewis created an atmosphere where how you thought and how you investigated were more important than the subject of the investigation. His own chief interests at that time were pain and small vessel physiology; Pochin was interested in the mechanism of the ‘eye signs’ in thyrotoxicosis and from 1937-41 his main programme was to define the differences between lid lag, lid retraction, proptosis or true exophthalmos, and their respective methods of production. In addition, during his first year, he worked with Lewis on mechanisms of pain response in normal and tabetic people - an interest revived briefly in 1948. Although he later gained an international reputation as an endocrinologist his interest and work on thyroid hormone physiology came nearly 10 years later, as a result of world events.

At the beginning of the war, Pochin was seconded to the Ministry of Health to assist in the development of the EMS but he resumed his research in September 1939, working temporarily at the NIMR at Hampstead. By 1940 his work continued at UCH, mainly for the committee on traumatic shock, where he developed a simplified method of estimating blood volume with Harington [Munk's Roll, Vol.VI, p.222] and Squire [Munk's Roll, Vol.VI, p.412]. In 1941 Lewis again wrote to the MRC: ‘It is clear to me that we are paying Pochin too little; he has published a number of notable papers and is putting out useful results quite regularly. He is a man whom we cannot afford to lose from clinical research.’ In July of that year, Sir Edward Mellanby [Munk's Roll, Vol.V, p.279], the secretary of the MRC, sent Pochin to the MRC’s physiology laboratory in the Armoured Fighting Vehicles Training School, where Pochin became director in 1945. He was particularly concerned with visual physiology, fields of vision, dazzle, and the problems of tank crews working in confined spaces.

When Lewis died in 1945, the MRC and UCHMS agreed to offer the directorship of the department of clinical research to Pochin. Mellanby was looking at the potential biological problems and values of radio nucleides. Iodine131 was by now known as a product of uranium fission and might create a physiological hazard, and he wanted Pochin first to attend as a British observer at the Bikini Atoll atomic bomb tests. Whatever idea Pochin might once have had, the die was cast. He took up his appointment in December 1946, recruiting Erasmus Barlow, who had worked for the MRC during the war and was now interested in recording eye movements, and E A G Goldie who had been at the RAF physiology laboratory. Goldie was an expert in electronics and was sent to the USA to study methods of detecting and measuring radio isotopes. He returned in 1947 to set up a method of measuring thyroid metabolic activity with the use of a radioactive isotope of iodine, I131. He died in April 1948 but the work he achieved in 1947-48 provided the basis of a method of measuring thyroid activity for both thyrotoxicosis and secondary deposits of thyroid carcinoma.

At the same time, Pochin was developing mathematical concepts of iodide spaces, clearance, turnover, and half life in the body, with similar concepts for organically bound iodine and its subsequent metabolism In that year the foundations for the main clinical work of the department for the next 30 years were laid down.

In the same year, N B Myant - who had worked with J R Squire [Munk's Roll, Vol.VI, p.412] - was recruited to work on thyroid metabolism. Pochin shared Lewis’s belief that the department should be multidisciplinary in subjects though monotheistic in philosophy and in March 1948 he recruited DAW Edwards from the RAF physiology laboratory. Edwards was interested in lean body mass, fat distribution, and metabolism - not far from Pochin’s own interests in blood volume and intra-orbital fat in exophthalmos. With the directorship of the department went an honorary consultant appointment at UCH and also the responsibilities of a teaching firm. Pochin felt that the department needed a second person to help with patient care and teaching so that E N Rowlands, a physiologically minded gastroenterologist trained in clinical research, was appointed first assistant in 1949. He became director of the MRC gastroenterology research unit in 1956.

Pochin was neither an electronics expert nor an engineer and he needed a team to design and develop the technology and equipment to make the measurements he knew should be made. A J Honour, who had been Lewis’s chief technician and was then a research officer, recruited A Cronquist, an instrument and watchmaker. Between them they designed, engineered and handcrafted the counting and scanning equipment for many years. After the death of Goldie, a physicist and electronics engineer - B D Corbett - was recruited and was succeeded by F Barnaby and others, all of whom continued to design electronic circuits and equipment for detecting and measuring radioactivity in the living body and in liquid and solid tissues, developing whole body counting, liquid and solid counters, dose control, monitoring equipment, measurement of radioactivitiy of doses and excreta, and risk to and hazard control of patients and staff - trying to keep pace with Pochin’s fertile mind.

Pochin’s committee life began during the war, as a member of sub-committees of the Military and of the Royal Naval Personnel Research committees. By 1945-46 he was a member of five MRC committees and by 1948 four more had been added including the Clinical Applications of Nuclear Physics and the Protection against Ionizing Radiations committees. By 1950 the pattern of his own work and interest had been set in the field of radiation hazards and radiation protection and he was active in what was to become the International Commission on Radiological Protection: he was a full member and vice-chairman 1959-61, chairman 1962-69, and emeritus member on his retirement. He persuaded them to set up, and issue in 1977, protection standards which are now in use throughout Europe and in many other parts of the world. They were based on risk comparisons worked out by himself and published as an ‘Index of Harm’, the first quantification of the risks of radiation especially in the context of other hazards like crossing the road or smoking, and natural radioactivity.

In 1955 he attended as a founder member the first session of the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, in New York, and was the UK delegate until 1982. He was a founder member of The UK National Radiological Protection Board 1971-82 and remained a consultant to the board until his death. He assisted at the Windscale enquiry in 1957 and played a major part in assessing dietary contamination and its effects, and in interpreting the way in which the recommendations of the International Commission on Radiological Protection should be applied in emergencies.

After the second major problem at Windscale he was appointed assessor for the Government. Later, at the Sizewell enquiry he gave detailed evidence on behalf of the NRPB. He joined the Royal Society’s study group on radiation risk assessment, which published a report in 1983. Pochin believed that nuclear power was necessary and inevitable but he wanted it to be as safe as possible. To put the problems in perspective he wrote a book Nuclear power and the environment for the International Atomic Energy Agency, published in 1982.

In 1987, at the age of 76, he led the Government’s enquiry into the radiological health and safety, and protection, at the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, producing the scathing ‘Pochin Report’ which led to important modifications to radiation protection at the Establishment. For 40 years he was one of Britain’s foremost authorities on radiation medicine and radiological protection.

He had remarkable diplomatic skills in persuading people to talk science when they wanted to talk politics. His opinion on radiological protection matters, medical and commercial uses of radiation, and the biological problems of nuclear power, was sought by a wide variety of individuals, societies, companies, agencies and committees at home and abroad - partly because of his reputation for being honest and fair.

In committees, and when answering questions in public, he spoke loudly, clearly and decisively, with an authority that was quickly recognized. In private he was shy, diffident, and did not express emotion easily. He had no time for fools nor any for those who appeared to be devious but, although he was clearly exasperated, he did not say or do anything unkind to them. Nor did he tolerate unpunctuality and he seemed invariably to be in a hurry. He was a very disciplined person who liked orderliness in everything. He had indefatigable mental and physical energy and seemed inclined to expect everyone else to have the same. He also had a critical and logical approach to problems, which he tackled with both integrity and modesty. He was a formidable but fair and rational editor, and a fair and supportive director.

For all his numeracy, science and international committee work, he was hooked on being a doctor. When committees and research were discouraging, he felt his existence was justified if he could help a patient. Nothing was allowed to interfere with their care. He never missed a teaching session, a clinic or ward round, without a very good reason. He was a passionate believer in informed consent, the ultimate responsibility of the investigator, and in the investigator’s conscience as the ethical basis of clinical research. He was always trusted by his patients and his staff and he always honoured that trust. A ward sister who worked with him for 25 years remembered him with great respect and affection; ‘. . . despite all his research he always had time for his patients as individuals, and acknowledged his nursing staff.’

He married Constance Margaret Julia, daughter of Tobias Harry Tilly, a solicitor, in 1940 and they had a son and a daughter. His wife died in 1971, which greatly distressed him He was survived by his children but had no grandchildren. On ‘retirement’ he went to live in a ‘cottage’ near Didcot, with an office at the National Radiological Protection Board, spending some two thirds of his time enjoying travelling on behalf of the Board or by invitation from other radiological protection bodies, universities and institutions. His other great love was rock climbing which was reduced to hill and fell walking in later years. He enjoyed other people’s painting and sculpture, painting himself and, in particular, drawing the countryside with accuracy and understanding.

DAW Edwards

[Brit.med.J., 1990,300,531; The Lancet, 1990,335,344; Times, 31 Jan 1990; The Independent, 8 Feb 1990; The Daily Telegraph, 5 Feb 1990; National Radiological Protection Board,Gen.Notice No.6/90;MRC News, June 1990,47,40]

(Volume IX, page 424)

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