Lives of the fellows

John Michael Newsom-Davis

b.18 October 1932 d.24 August 2007
CBE(1996) BChir Cantab(1960) MB(1961) MRCP(1962) MD(1966) FRCP(1973) FRS(1991) FMedSci(1998)

John Newsom-Davis was a clinical neuroscientist who, alongside very few others of his generation, ensured the place of academic neurology as an authoritative discipline within the realm of molecular medicine in the latter part of the 20th century. The son of John Kenneth Newsom-Davis, a company director, and Dorothy Eileen Newsom-Davis née Tate, he came late to medicine having flown Meteors during National Service (from 1951 to 1953) and at one point considered a career in the Royal Air Force. Educated at Sherborne School, Dorset, he first read natural sciences at Pembroke College, Cambridge, then qualified in medicine from the Middlesex Hospital Medical School, University of London. His Cambridge MD was awarded in 1966. Moran Campbell [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XI, p.95] first fostered Newsom-Davis’ interest in investigative medicine and Michael Kremer [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.265] attracted him into neurology. Newsom-Davis was a lecturer in the university department of clinical neurology at the Institute of Neurology, Queen Square, with Roger Gilliatt [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.195] from 1967 to 1969. He then spent a year as a research fellow at Cornell Medical College, New York, working with Fred Plum. Newsom-Davis joined the consultant staff at Queen Square and the Royal Free Hospital in 1970.

By the 1960s, the study of neurophysiology had, for many years, underpinned the scientific basis of neurology. After studying the neural control of breathing with Tom Sears at Queen Square in patients with lesions of the spinal cord and healthy individuals, including himself (leading to an acute pneumothorax, the collapsed lung described to his wife during the following night as ‘like a wet fish flapping around in my chest’), in 1970 Newsom-Davis published The respiratory muscles: mechanics and neural control (London, Lloyd Luke) with Moran Campbell and Emilio Agostini. Writing a book as a young man made Newsom-Davis wary of repeating that experience, and he did not consider himself to be an especially natural writer, at least of review articles. At that time, he interacted with the leading neurophysiologist, Ricardo Miledi, who wanted access to human intercostal muscle. As physician in charge of the Batten unit at the National Hospital, Queen Square, Newsom-Davis managed cases with respiratory difficulties due to myasthenia gravis.

His work changed direction in 1976 when, because antibodies had already been implicated in the pathogenesis, it was suggested to him that plasma exchange might be used to treat that condition. The remarkable effect of this novel treatment inspired Newsom-Davis to focus the rest of his career on neuroimmunology. He went back to school and trained in immunology with Ivan Roitt and Deborah Doniach [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XI, p.160] at the Middlesex Hospital Medical School. The availability of antibodies removed from patients with myasthenia gravis undergoing plasma exchange provided experimental opportunities that benefited, in part, from Newsom-Davis’ background in experimental neurophysiology. Peter (P K) Thomas [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web] encouraged Newsom-Davis to base his laboratory research at the Royal Free Hospital. Moving outside the influence of Roger Gilliatt and Queen Square fostered the unjustified perception that Newsom-Davis was disloyal to his alma mater although, as a young man, he was not comfortable with the uncritical hagiography that characterised the National Hospital, being branded a ‘communist’ when, as a resident medical officer in 1968, it fell to him to inform the medical committee that payments to junior staff looking after private patients would now be required. But he held in great affection and respect those who had taught him clinical and experimental neurology and shaped his own professional development.

With Angela Vincent, who joined him at the Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine in 1977, the group systematically unravelled disease mechanisms in many different categories of myasthenia gravis. The work was recognised by Newsom-Davis’ appointment, in 1980, to the first Medical Research Council (MRC) clinical research professorship, held at the Royal Free Hospital and the Institute of Neurology. In 1981 came the second major discovery when another, hitherto unknown, autoantibody responsible for a closely related disorder, the Lambert-Eaton myasthenic syndrome, was identified, also helping to explain many mysterious disorders that constitute remote effects of cancer. In 1987 Newsom-Davis was elected action research professor of clinical neurology at the University of Oxford. There followed a highly productive decade for the loyal group that moved with him from London. A third immunological scalp was added in the form of a novel autoantibody implicated in a rare disorder, acquired neuromyotonia (Isaacs’ syndrome). This led to the realisation that the autoimmune ion-channel disorders have effects in the brain as well as on nerve and muscle.

Newsom-Davis brought authority and the international perspective of someone who had served academic medicine for many years to his clinical, research and administrative work. He was a member of the Medical Research Council from 1983 to 1987 and, having served on the neurosciences grants committee from 1978, chaired the MRC neurosciences board (from 1983 to 1985). The impressive catalogue of his scientific achievements was further recognised, inter alia, through his election to the fellowship of the Royal Society (in 1991), as a foundation fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences (in 1998), where the council rooms in Portland Place are named after him following a donation from the Welton Foundation, which he served as trustee for many years, and as a foreign associate member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies of the USA (in 2001). He was appointed CBE in 1996.

Few could rival Newsom-Davis as a communicator. Lectures were carefully crafted. The preparation was meticulous, the delivery lively, the arguments presented with impeccable logic, the language precise but never indulgent, and the recognition of good performance sincerely given and gladly received. He approached original data with appetite and enthusiasm, showing a fluency that led to many original research papers of lasting value. He understood and could guide younger colleagues through the many and complex vicissitudes of academic life. He always had the right word of encouragement, made the thoughtful telephone call, sent the sensitive hand-written letter or email, and showed personal interest in those with whom he worked.

In 2005, Newsom-Davis was interviewed as part of the oral history archive of the American Neurological Association, to which he had been elected as a foreign member in 1980. Rehearsing arguments offered to the British Association for the Advancement of Science when he was president of the biological section in 1982, Newsom-Davis explained: ‘It is usually said that the first description of myasthenia gravis was by Thomas Willis [Munk’s Roll, Vol.I, p.338]. But, actually the wonderful Rubens painting in the National Gallery shows Samson in a myasthenic crisis with the typical bilateral ptosis and posture of extreme asthenia whilst also losing his hair from the associated autoimmune alopecia’.

In 1963, Newsom-Davis married Rosemary Elisabeth Schmid, an English-Swiss national who later became an educational psychologist. With their three children, Amelia, Imogen and Tom, family life was his main source of pleasure, based in London (or Oxford) and Dorset, where he would toil in the garden and, after several hours poring over recipe books, cook sumptuously for family and friends. His recreation was music, especially opera.

In retirement, from 1998, Newsom-Davis needed new challenges. As a former secretary (from 1981 to 1984) and medallist (1999), it was natural that he should be elected president of the Association of British Neurologists (from 1999 to 2000). He felt that the Association had drifted away from its origins in 1932 as a forum for discussing the best of British scientific neurology, and took several steps in the direction of merging the interests of an expanding membership, focused on providing high quality clinical services, with pride in presenting the best clinical neuroscience being carried out in the United Kingdom. From 1997 to 2004 he edited Brain, which he had already served as secretary and treasurer (from 1977 to 1981) and as chairman of the guarantors (from 1994 to 1999). The journal grew in stature under his editorship. He introduced electronic processing and online publication well ahead of other journals in the field. For over 40 years, removal of the thymus gland (located behind the sternum) had been performed as a treatment for myasthenia gravis, but without formal evidence either for efficacy or safety. In association with experts in the United States, Newsom-Davis obtained funding from the National Institutes of Health to conduct a multicentre trial involving over 80 centres. His death occurred in a road accident at Adjud, Romania, after visiting a participating hospital in Bucharest.

Known universally as ‘J N D’, Newsom-Davis changed the lives of people with myasthenia gravis. He earned respect for the clinical neurosciences in a changing climate of academic medicine. He led by example and motivated others to adopt careers in clinical neuroscience. He valued ability, intellectual honesty and curiosity. He inspired loyalty and affection and reciprocated both, especially to young people, with whom he interacted easily at home and abroad. He flourished at a time when developments in other branches of medicine threatened to leave neurology in their wake. His legacy was successfully to have steered clinical neuroscience, traditionally descriptive and rooted in neurophysiology, into the age of molecular medicine. He effected this transition through excellence as a clinical neurologist, his grounding in neurophysiology, his preparedness to master new disciplines, and the opportunism that favours the prepared mind.

Alastair Compston

[Compston, A. ‘Davis, John Michael Newsom (1932–2007)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2011 – accessed 26 February 2015; Vincent A. ‘John Newsom-Davis: clinician-scientist and so much more.’ Brain 2011: 134; 3752-3771; The Independent 18 September 2007 – accessed 12 March 2015; The Guardian 21 September 2015 – accessed 12 March 2015; The Times 25 September 2007; The Lancet 2007 370 1205 – accessed 12 March 2015; BMJ 2007 335 830 – accessed 12 March 2015; Who was who volume XII (2006-2010) London, A & C Black, 2011]

(Volume XII, page web)

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