Lives of the fellows

Geoffrey Lister Asherson

b.21 October 1929 d.30 May 2003
BA Oxon(1951) BM BCh(1953) MA(1953) MRCP Edin(1956) MRCP(1957) DCH(1957) DM(1963) MRCPath(1964) FRCP Edin(1971) FRCP(1973) FRCPath(1973)

Geoffrey Asherson was an immunologist who was among the first in his field to apply the basic discoveries of his scientific discipline to clinical problems. This professional activity was complemented by his active interest in a broad range of social issues.

His lifelong intellectual ardour and wide-ranging interests were fostered early in life by his cosmopolitan background. His father, Nehemian Asherson, was born in Lithuania and came via South Africa to London where he was a well known ear, nose and throat specialist. His mother was born in Australia. Geoffrey spent much of his childhood in Canada. After attending Mill Hill School, he undertook his pre-clinical studies at Jesus College, Oxford, and his clinical studies in Edinburgh and University College Hospital, London. After clinical appointments including national service in a RAF hospital, he began his career in immunology.

The interests and attitudes which shaped his career were nurtured at the National Institute for Medical Research in Mill Hill, as a Beit memorial scholar in Melbourne, and at the Medical Research Council's Rheumatism Research Unit in Taplow. Geoffrey's first mentor was John Humphrey, who taught him that the ability to carry out a basic precipitation titration of antigen and antibody solutions was an essential prerequisite for even the most imaginative immunological theorist. This was in the days before experiments reliant on pipettes and test tubes were replaced by almost total automation. Geoffrey was a practical laboratory worker throughout his career. His interest in immunological mechanisms of disease in general and autoimmune diseases in particular were also stimulated by his association with Leonard Glynn and John Holborow in the pastoral tranquility of the Taplow countryside.

After a period as reader in immunology at the London Hospital Medical College, Geoffrey became head of the division of immunological medicine at the Medical Research Council's newly established Clinical Research Centre. This was integrated with Northwick Park Hospital in a scheme designed to link basic research with clinical applications. It was the ideal setting for combining Geoffrey's research and clinical interests and he worked there from 1969 until his retirement in 1994. His main research interest was cellular immunology, which at the start of his career was a mainly descriptive discipline. Its importance in many clinical fields was well recognised, but the biochemical and molecular basis of experimental results was ill understood.

Geoffrey was among the first immunologists to perceive the limitations of analysing experimental results in his field in purely descriptive terms. His early reputation was based on results obtained with biological techniques, many of which he had devised. He moved to biochemical assays to measure the outcome of cellular interactions and he was a pioneer in the now dominant field of cytokine physiology. He foresaw the crucial importance of suppressor cells and their products in the control of normal immune responses and the implications of this topic for understanding autoimmune diseases. Many of his papers concerned attempts to identify suppressor cells and factors in animal models of delayed hypersensitivity disorders and clinical situations. He persisted in these efforts despite much scepticism in the immunological community and his vision has been vindicated by recent discoveries.

His main clinical interest was in immunodeficiency. With David Webster he set up a clinic for studying and treating patients with common variable hypogammaglobulinaemia and other diseases, which attracted patients from all over the south of England. They were jointly responsible for characterizing many of these disorders in accord with their immunological abnormalities.

Geoffrey's international reputation is reflected in his prolific output of scientific papers, many of which have become classic contributions to cellular immunology, and authoritative contributions to books and review journals on many aspects of basic and applied immunology. The large number of basic and clinical scientists who came to work with him at the Clinical Research Centre also testify to his standing. Many of these visitors were already leaders in their field by the time of this attachment, while others achieved distinction in later years. He collaborated with the leading laboratories in his field, notably in Poland, Italy, Israel, the USA and Australia. He was also in great demand as a speaker at immunological meetings and colloquia. His resourcefulness on these occasions was legendary. Determined at one conference to present his very latest data for the delegates' delectation, he turned the hotel suite he was sharing with another delegate into an improvised photographic studio which rendered the bathroom and most of the bedroom unavailable for conventional purposes until late into the night.

Geoffrey's humanist philosophy and wide scientific contacts and friendships were the spur to his great efforts on behalf of immunological education. As international secretary to the British Society for Immunology and in a private capacity, he was especially concerned with establishing summer schools and exchange visits by other scientists in Russia and Eastern Europe. He gave great support to refugees in the United Kingdom and unlimited hospitality and encouragement to visiting scientists, musicians, and other artists. After retirement he was secretary to British Friends of Neve Shalom, the combined Arab and Jewish village in Israel set up to foster mutual understanding and respect between the two peoples. He was very active in the cultural programme of the West London Synagogue, where he was a close friend of the late rabbi Hugo Gryn. He did some of his best thinking on immunology and other matters whilst hill walking, especially in the English Lake District. He had limitless energy and enthusiasm for medicine, science, literature, the theatre, and social issues. Conversations and more formal meetings were open-ended as far as time limits were concerned; he was seemingly oblivious to the usual need for sleep and sustenance.

He was predeceased by his wife Barbara, a graduate of the London School of Economics, who gave him unfailing support.

Alan Michael Denman

(Volume XI, page 31)

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