Lives of the fellows

Ellis Samols

b.11 February 1935 d.16 May 2006
MB ChB Cape Town(1956) MRCP(1961) FRCP(1978)

Ellis Samols, an expert on diabetes who brought the insulin radio-immunoassay to Europe, was one of a generation of émigrés from South Africa, apartheid’s gift to western science. The son of liberal Jewish parents living in Cape Town, he graduated in medicine at the early age of 21. After completing all the formalities of training, including a year as a trainee in clinical pathology, he went straight to Britain, where he began his promising career. He held a research fellowship with Russell Fraser [Munk’s Roll, Vol.X, p.149] at the Postgraduate Medical School, Hammersmith, where he worked on the measurement of insulin in plasma using the rat-diaphragm method – the only one currently available – but abandoned it immediately he learned about radio-immunoassay from Sol Berson and Ros Yalow, while on honeymoon in New York. Ellis had more confidence in the new technology than Russell Fraser – and most other endocrinologists of the time – and joined Sheila Sherlock [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XI, p.514], who recognised his talent and offered him a fellowship/lectureship in her newly established academic department of medicine at the Royal Free Hospital Medical School, London.

Ellis’s lab, situated in a prefab on the roof of some old buildings at the back of the hospital, was soon full of long strips of filter paper, hanging down from the ceiling, where they had been placed to dry before being cut up into segments. The segments were in turn delivered to the battery of gamma counters from which, by some very complicated formula, it was possible to determine the ratio of antibody bound to free radio-labelled insulin, the key to successful radio-immunoassay at the time. Each batch of assays took almost a week to perform and was very labour-intensive. No wonder most people were put off and thought Ellis mad for doing it. Only a few intrepid investigators came to learn the method – now one of the most widely used techniques in one guise or another in clinical laboratories throughout the world – but they too were rewarded by the enormous advantages it gave them over other investigative scientists using less sensitive and less specific assay techniques.

During his enormously productive six years at the Royal Free Hospital Ellis had many collaborators, both from inside and outside the department. Chief amongst the latter was Vincent Marks, who introduced him to the study of spontaneous hypoglycaemia and glucagon physiology. Together they established what is still the most clinically important use of the insulin assay, namely its role in the differential diagnosis of spontaneous hypoglycaemia. They also discovered the remarkable capacity of glucagon to stimulate insulin secretion and conversely of insulin to inhibit glucagon secretion and which, 20 years later, together with John Stagner, his main collaborator at the time, Samols went on to establish is of immense importance in understanding islet physiology. Samols and Marks also established the role of a glucagon-like substance released from the intestine in response to food in the incretin concept of glucose homeostasis that had been resurrected from oblivion by Neil Mcintyre and his colleagues who had taken over Ellis’s laboratory during his sabbatical in Seattle.

Samols moved to the USA permanently in 1968. His first four years were spent in Augusta, Georgia, but they were academically unproductive as he suffered a bout of severe mental illness, from which he fortunately made a complete and permanent recovery.

Through the good offices of Sol Berson, with whom he maintained a lifelong friendship, Ellis secured a position in the Veterans Administration Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky. He remained there, in one capacity or another, for the next 20 years, until he moved west to be nearer his children. Whilst in Louisville Ellis served not only as chief of staff at the Veterans Administration Hospital and professor of medicine at the University of Louisville, but also found time to practice as a clinician in endocrinology, as well as in nuclear medicine and cardiology, in all of which specialties he gained board certification. He also conducted some first class research, mainly in collaboration with John Stagner, who joined him initially a junior, but ultimately as an equal partner, the most important of which was in relation to the direction and physiological importance of blood flow through the islets of Langerhans.

After a brief sojourn as acting professor of medicine at Stanford University, Ellis spent the last 10 years of his life as professor and chairman of the department of medicine in the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. Throughout his life anyone who came into contact with Ellis Samols immediately recognised him as far brighter than the average man and one you either instinctively liked or disliked but never failed to notice. He was extremely well informed on some subjects – and noticeably ignorant of others, especially current affairs, even though his collection of newspaper articles was most impressive and he knew exactly where to find them. He had a passion for good music and for fine art, and much of his last visit to Britain was spent in Tate Modern. He liked fast cars, especially his Porsche, one of the few to be seen on the streets of Louisville, and would think nothing of driving to Chicago with his wife, a journey of several hundred miles, just for the weekend. He was a keen tennis player until a back injury put a stop to it a few years before he died.

He died from Lewy body dementia in Las Vegas, cared for by his recently estranged wife, Gay, to whom he was married for almost 45 years. He left two children (Michael and Jacqueline) and four grandchildren.

Vincent Marks

[The Lancet 2006 368 360;The Independent 30 June 2006]

(Volume XII, page web)

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