Lives of the fellows

Timothy Clive Northfield

b.16 February 1935 d.2 May 2008
MA Cantab(1959) MRCS LRCP(1962) MB BChir(1963) MRCP(1965) MD(1970) FRCP(1977) MA Lond(2000) DSc Lond(2003)

Tim Northfield was a gifted academic gastroenterologist who played an important role in the development of his specialty, achieving national and international recognition, and in doing so transformed gastroenterology services in south west London. He was born in London, the son of Douglas Northfield [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.434], who was director of the neurosurgical unit at the London (now the Royal London) Hospital from 1938 to 1967, and was educated at Radley College. On leaving school in 1953 he undertook two years National Service in the Royal Artillery as a second lieutenant, serving with the British Army of the Rhine, where his proximity to the guns led to mild noise-induced hearing loss. Later, Nelson-like, he turned this minor impediment to good use in committee meetings.

He initially decided against following his father into medicine and was awarded a place at Peterhouse College, Cambridge, to read history. However, he soon switched to natural sciences with a view to following a medical career. His medical training was undertaken at Guy’s Medical School, where his academic ability was recognised by the award of a number of prizes. He met his future wife Rosemary (Norton), who was also a Guy’s graduate, soon after they both qualified. They were married in 1964.

After junior training posts at Guy’s Hospital in London, appointment as registrar to Sir Francis Avery Jones [Munk’s Roll, Vol. XII, web] in the MRC gastroenterology unit at the Central Middlesex Hospital gave him the broad clinical and research experience which was the foundation of his subsequent career in gastroenterology. At this time he first developed an interest in the physiological complications of acute gastrointestinal bleeding. These studies formed the basis of an MD degree from Cambridge University. He returned to Guy’s as MRC research fellow in the departments of biochemistry and medical chemistry, before taking up registrar and senior registrar appointments there. He was subsequently awarded an MRC travelling fellowship to work with Alan Hofmann on bile acids at the Mayo Clinic.

Tim was appointed senior lecturer in medicine at St George’s Hospital Medical School in 1974. He was an advocate of close clinical and research collaboration with colleagues in other disciplines and elected to have the majority of his consultant clinical sessions at the associated teaching hospital, St James’ Hospital, Balham, renowned for its gastrointestinal surgical unit established by distinguished gastric surgeon Norman Tanner. Here he established clinical and research collaboration with Tanner’s successors, until clinical services were relocated in 1988 to the nearby Tooting site of St George’s Hospital.

He worked single-mindedly in collaboration with his surgical and radiological colleagues to build up specialised gastroenterological services in south west London, and designed and established a first-rate day case/endoscopy unit (the Norman Tanner unit) at St George’s Hospital. He was awarded the Hopkins endoscopy prize of the British Society of Gastroenterology in 1987 and national gastroenterology team of the year by Hospital Doctor in 1995.

However, his great energy and enthusiasm were principally devoted to academic gastroenterology. He first published a prize-winning paper as a medical student and was a brilliant and productive clinical researcher who attracted and trained a large number of research fellows, and encouraged them to pursue ideas with determination. Further contributions were made to understanding the mechanisms of upper gastrointestinal bleeding and improving its management. He pioneered the use of endoscopic therapy for bleeding ulcers and developed national guidelines for the management of upper GI bleeding which are still in use. Other fruitful areas of research included studies on bile acids and the role of helicobacter pylori infection. His contributions to postgraduate medical education included organising the annual gastroenterology teaching day at St George’s, as well as organising a number of international meetings and presidency of the annual international advanced course in gastroenterology.

He was single minded in the pursuit of academic goals and successful in raising the necessary funds to achieve this. Over 150 publications in peer-reviewed journals resulted, and his research fellows were rigorously trained in research and presentational skills. As a well-established international figure he still valued thorough rehearsal and feedback on his own presentations. Indeed with his team he even rehearsed his father of the bride speech before his daughter’s wedding and incorporated various suggestions for polishing this, to great acclaim on the big day. His academic contributions were recognised by the award of title of professor of gastroenterology (1988) and medicine (1998), and later the award of a doctor of science degree by the University of London in 2003.

A mild stroke led him to curtail clinical activities. After he retired he kept a keen interest in research activities at the medical school, and resumed his interest in history, specialising in local history. He had a particular interest in the history of the derelict 15th century farmhouse he and Rosemary bought in Chipstead in 1987. After a day’s work at the medical school he used percussion to locate the major timbers of the original timber framing which had been covered up in Victorian times, and won over sceptics who doubted his estimate of the age of the building by applying the technique of dendrochronology to date old beams. He attended courses in Oxford and Cambridge and was awarded a second MA, this time by Goldsmith’s College, in English local and regional history with a dissertation on ‘A millenium of Merstham Manor and its sub-manors, from 10th century charter bounds to 19th century parish boundaries’. Although more a theoretical than practical gardener, he enjoyed supervising the restoration of the neglected grounds at Hazelwood farm and took particular pleasure in creating a wild flower meadow.

He is survived by his wife Rosemary (an occupational health physician), daughter Jane and son John, a physician.

Douglas Maxwell

(Volume XII, page web)

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