Lives of the fellows

Israel Doniach

b.9 March 1911 d.11 February 2001
MB BS London (1934) MD(1936) FRCPath(1963) FRCP(1968)

The gentle kindly appearance of Professor Doniach, known as 'Sonny' to family and friends, and 'Do' to colleagues, was allied to a powerful scholarly intellect. He had a deceptively innocent but potentially devastating debating style involving the use of a simple question to drive a coach and horses through the adversarial argument. Conversation would nonetheless be punctuated by his keen sense of humour. Even shortly before his death, he responded to a joke with spontaneously hearty laughter. His compassion for others and his broad appreciation of scientific issues made him a much revered teacher and university department head as scores of his pupils and colleagues would testify.

He was born to Jewish parents who came to England a few years earlier to escape persecution in Russia. His father, Aaron, was an Arabic and Hebrew scholar who founded the world's first chair of modem Hebrew at what is now the London University School of Oriental Studies, while his mother, Rachel, wrote numerous plays and stories in Hebrew and Yiddish. Sonny was the youngest of three children, all talented. His brother was a code-breaker at Bletchley Park during the Second World War and became a prolific Oxford lexicographer; his sister was a concert pianist and composer.

Brought up in modest circumstances in the East End of London, he won a scholarship to University College London to study medicine. After graduation in 1934, he went on to study pathology at St Mary's where he published his first work on the interaction of light and carcinogens in Nature. Thereafter, from 1938 to 1942, he was a clinical pathologist and cancer researcher at Mount Vernon Hospital and until 1960 senior lecturer and then reader in morbid anatomy at the London Postgraduate Medical School.

During this time, his innovative studies established him as a leader in the field of thyroid cell growth. Together with Howard Pelc, he developed the technique of autoradiography which permitted localisation of the uptake of radioactive isotopes to individual cells within a given tissue and increased understanding of the role of cell division in the physiology and pathology of the thyroid. The generic implications of this work for the study of the contribution made by stem cells to the organisation of other tissues was quickly apparent. His pioneering work revealed the carcinogenic potential of radioiodine for the thyroid gland, a finding of great significance in view of the extensive use of this isotope for diagnosis and treatment of thyroid disorders and its later confirmation in the high incidence of thyroid cancer in those unfortunate children exposed to the heavy fallout of radioiodine following the Chernobyl disaster. He was undoubtedly the leading British guru on the causes and diagnosis of thyroid cancers.

After his appointment in 1960 to the chair of morbid anatomy at the London Hospital Medical School he gently guided a successful and contented department. On retirement in 1976, as emeritus professor, he joined the histopathology department at Barts' where his wise counsel was greatly appreciated.

He loved gardening and building flint walls, reading novels, and discussing science with his wife, Deborah, an outstanding clinical immunologist who survives him. Tragically, he was predeceased by his daughter in 1958 but his son, Sebastian, continues to fly the intellectual flag as a highly distinguished professor of physics at Stanford University.

Ivan M Roitt

[The Times 2 March 2001]

(Volume XI, page 162)

<< Back to List