Lives of the fellows

Ephraim Joshua Field

b.20 March 1915 d.1 August 2002
MB BS Durham(1938) MD(1946) PhD Bristol(1953) MRCP(1964) FRCP(1969)

E J Field was an able, even brilliant, neuroscientist whose latter years were blighted by his unswerving belief in, and advocacy of, a test for multiple sclerosis and cancer which others showed to be of no diagnostic value. He was the first child of Solomon Herzfeld and his wife Naomi, and was born in London. The family name was changed to Field in 1921 and the family later moved to Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Here 'E J' (as he was subsequently known to most of his colleagues though he was 'Alfred' to certain friends) became a pupil at Rutherford Grammar School before entering the medical school at Armstrong College, Newcastle, the University of Durham, in 1932.

Before entering medical school he was fluent in ancient Hebrew and at one stage had been thought of as a future Rabbi until he lost his faith; he was also a fluent German speaker and was proficient in Ancient Greek, but never studied Latin at school. On learning that admission to medical school required a proficiency in Latin, he studied it over a period of six weeks and obtained a distinction in the examination. He had an outstanding undergraduate career and it was said that many of his peers refused to enter for prize competitions because they knew that it was virtually certain that Field would win. He deployed a prodigious memory and could quote large sections of Gray's Anatomy by rote. His years in medical school were blighted by financial difficulties as his father died in 1931 and his mother took over as the family breadwinner. Fortunately, the prizes he won as an undergraduate (he achieved distinctions in all subjects in the first and second MB examinations) helped to sustain him financially throughout his student career.

After graduating in medicine with honours and with distinctions in medicine and surgery in 1938, he worked first as a locum general practitioner before obtaining a house officer post at St Bartholomew's Hospital in London in 1939, being evacuated with the Bart's Medical School to Cambridge on the outbreak of the Second World War. Initially he embarked upon a surgical career but ultimately decided that scientific research was more his forte. Hence in 1940 he obtained an appointment as lecturer in anatomy at the Newcastle Medical School, where his reputation grew rapidly.

He was a superb teacher and lecturer, and deployed an outstanding clarity of mind and exposition which made him very popular with undergraduates and postgraduates alike. By contrast, he was a fierce, if fair, examiner and an apocryphal story suggests that when he was examining anatomy students in so-called anatomy 'sign-ups' (regular assessments), students would be seen praying on the stairs leading up to the anatomy dissection room, saying, "I hope I don't get E J". He also served with the University Senior Training Corps as captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps, but did not see active service.

In 1946 Field moved to be lecturer in anatomy (later becoming reader) at the University of Bristol and obtained a PhD for his work on the development of the cow embryo. From 1952 to 1953, he spent nine months working at the Institut Pasteur in Paris with Lepine on rabies, but in 1958 was invited by the late Henry Miller, professor of neurology, to move to Newcastle to undertake work as a consultant neuropathologist, even though he had had very little formal training in neuropathology. At the same time his wife Dereen, whom he had married in 1940, and who had graduated in medicine in Bristol in 1951, became a resident medical officer at the Royal Victoria Infirmary.

E J's subsequent career was in a sense meteoric: he was awarded a personal chair in experimental pathology by the University in 1959 and his work on multiple sclerosis (MS), experimental allergic encephalomyelitis, scrapie and kuru (which were then thought to be so-called 'slow virus' infections) led the Medical Research Council (MRC) to appoint him as honorary director of a new demyelinating diseases research unit, at first housed at 18 Framlington Place in Newcastle, but later provided with a purpose-built unit at the Newcastle General Hospital. Subsequently, he visited New Guinea to study kuru, on one occasion being accompanied by a BBC Horizon team. During the next few years the work of his unit was widely commended by the MRC, and a visiting team some five years after the unit had been established assessed its progress as remarkable.

Soon, however, clouds began to gather on the horizon. As a member of his family said, he was consumed throughout his life by a feeling of 'angst', perhaps relating to his financially insecure childhood and student career, accompanied by an irrational fear of failure and of potential ultimate destitution; this engendered a state of mind in which he seemed to lose his objective appreciation of his own work and that of others, and gradually he became someone who regularly found himself at odds with professional colleagues and with his MRC masters. Burgeoning administrative and management problems eventually led to his being relieved of his honorary directorship of the demyeliating diseases research unit in 1972. In the meantime, however, he had become obsessed with the idea that a technique involving measurement of macrophage migration inhibition, at first explored by one of his junior colleagues in the unit, might prove to be an accurate diagnostic test for MS and perhaps for cancer. Quickly, he claimed that the test was not only diagnostic but that it could distinguish clearly between patients with MS and those likely to develop it on the one hand, and patients with other neurological diseases and controls on the other. This led him to advocate that those symptom-free individuals, and even children, in whom the test was positive, should stick to a rigid diet with a high content of unsaturated fat in order to prevent MS from developing.

His neurological colleagues in Newcastle was very sceptical of his results and, with his agreement, obtained a large number of blood samples from patients with MS, with other neurological diseases and from control subjects; these samples were coded and were fed in to the technician in E J's department who was carrying out the tests. Sadly, the results turned out to be totally random. At first, E J was devastated as he felt that this finding was totally destructive of his major life's work, even though he had previously published some 280 scientific papers - 14 in Nature, 54 in The Lancet, 40 in the BMJ - all in prestigious journals. However, within a few days he had rationalised the situation by concluding to his own satisfaction (but not to that of others) that there had been flaws in the way in which the blood samples obtained by his neurological colleagues had been taken and handled before being passed on to his technician.

From that day onwards, his relationships with his Newcastle colleagues in neurology became increasingly fraught and he moved to work for a period with H J Meyer Reinecker in Rostock in the German Democratic Republic. However, his outgoing personality and his persuasive advocacy of his research led a number of Tyneside businessmen to raise substantial sums of money through a new organisation which he set up in opposition to the Multiple Sclerosis Society, which for scientific reasons had refused to support his work. These funds enabled E J to found the Naomi Bramson Trust (named after his mother) and a building was provided for him in the science park at the University of Warwick, where he continued with his work. Sadly, he remained obsessed with the macrophage migration inhibition test, and even on one occasion persuaded a neurological journal to publish a paper based upon that test which, to his satisfaction, proved that Duchenne muscular dystrophy was due to an autosomal recessive gene, ignoring the fact that the X-linked recessive gene responsible for the condition had been isolated and characterised some two years earlier. Throughout his period in Warwick and from 1994 onwards, when he became unable to continue with his work because of a series of cerebrovascular accidents, he was supported faithfully by his former chief technician, Greta Joyce, who became his companion and faithful supporter throughout the last years of his life, as his wife Dereen had died several years earlier.

Plainly, Field was a very complex character - a man of great intellectual brilliance and of culture (he loved music and poetry, the arts and the theatre); he and his wife were hosts to innumerable parties in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the happier years of his professional life there. Many of his earlier contributions to neuroscience will stand the test of time, but those who worked with him and admired him as a man, not least for his personal charm, kindness and support at times of difficulty in the earlier years, deeply regretted the fact that his obsessive belief in, and commitment to, a discredited test and subsequent programme of research soured his relationship with his professional colleagues and alienated him from the wider neurological community. He is certainly not the first, nor will he be the last, scientist whose dedication to an ill-founded idea cast a blight on an otherwise distinguished career.

Throughout the years of his marriage to his beloved Dereen, his home was a happy and cheerful one and his family life was exemplary. His son, David, a distinguished physicist, and his daughter, Judith, survive him.

Lord Walton of Detchant

(Volume XI, page 191)

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