Lives of the fellows

John Leslie Turk

b.2 October 1930 d.4 June 2006
MRCS LRCP(1953) MB BS Lond(1953) MD(1959) MRCPath(1963) DSc(1967) MRCP(1970) FRCPath(1974) FRCP(1975) FRCS(1978)

John Leslie Turk was Sir William Collins professor of human and comparative pathology at the Institute of Basic Medical Sciences, Royal College of Surgeons. As a leading member of the group of clinical and experimental immunologists who helped to found the British Society for Immunology, he can be said to be largely responsible for making immunology the international discipline that it is today.

Born in Farnborough, the son of Max, a solicitor, he was educated at Malvern College, where he specialised in classics. At London University and Guy’s Hospital he studied medicine, qualifying in 1953. After house jobs at Lewisham Hospital, he did his National Service as a lieutenant captain in the RAMC from 1954 to 1956, and served in Egypt and Cyprus, where he developed his interest in pathology.

On demobilisation he was appointed lecturer in bacteriology to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and stayed there for three years before going to the National Institute for Medical research at Mill Hill, to join their scientific staff in the immunology division. In 1963 he became director of the Medical Research Council research group on immunological aspects of dermatology at London University’s Institute of Dermatology. Continuing to build on the early work of Sir Peter Medawar [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VIII, p.330] and John Humphrey [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VIII, p.230] in the field, and to forge links internationally, in 1967 he was promoted to reader in immunology at the university. Three years later, he joined the Institute of Basic Medical Sciences at the Royal College of Surgeons of England as Sir Willliam Collins professor of human and comparative anatomy.

His scientific work impacted in many fields. He combined clinical and experimental tools, not only to understand the basic tenets of cellular immunology, but also to apply the findings to the understanding of diseases as well as the action of drugs that affected the immune response. While working to understand the basis of some dermatological disorders, he developed great expertise in the treatment of leprosy and encouraged scientists from the developing countries to train with him and then to take their new knowledge home.

The author of numerous scientific papers on immunological and other subjects, he also wrote two books, Delayed hypersensitivity (Amsterdam, North-Holland, 1967) and Immunology in clinical medicine (London, Heinemann Medical, 1969). The latter proved a highly popular introduction to the relevance of immunological theory to general medical and surgical practice, and was translated into many different languages including Bulgarian and Japanese. Editor of the journals Clinical immunology and Leprosy review, he was meeting secretary of the British Society for Immunology, president of the section of immunology of the Royal Society of Medicine and adviser on leprosy to the World Health Organization.

Refusing to relinquish work, on his retirement he spent many years as curator of the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons of England and, together with Sir Reginald Murley, published a very fine edition of the collected case books of John Hunter. He also produced several scholarly articles on medical history.

Travelling extensively, he spoke several modern languages and kept up the classical languages he had learnt at school. A convivial man, he was always entertaining visiting foreign academics and clinicians. He supported the Labour Party for many years before becoming disillusioned, and continued to work for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. He had a passion for literature, for classical music and judaica. An enthusiastic collector of antiques, he displayed them in his London home and Suffolk cottage, and was happy to discourse knowledgeably on their provenance.

In 1954, he married Theresa (‘Terry’) née Posner, whose father Max was a company director; she was a GP. They had met when he was doing house jobs at Lewisham Hospital. Their son wrote that he doted on Terry and that he was ‘always joking apologetically to conference organisers that he would have to leave as soon as possible to return home to her cooking’. They had two sons, Simon, a certified accountant, and Jeremy, who undertook a project on the mental health of leprosy patients and became a professor of psychiatry at St George’s. When he died from the renal complications of long term diabetes, he was survived by Terry, their two sons and three grandchildren.

RCP editor

[Times 9 August 2006; BMJ 2006 333 450; Clin exp immunol 2006 145 571-2; Lep rev 2007 78 409-13; Lives of the Fellows of the Royal College of Surgeons of England – accessed on 5 January 2015]

(Volume XII, page web)

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