Lives of the fellows

Donald James Jeffries

b.29 August 1941 d.7 December 2011
CBE (2007) BSc Lond(1963) MB BS(1966) MRCPath(1974) FRCPath(1986) FRCP(2001)

Don Jeffries was professor of virology and head of medical microbiology at St Bartholomew’s and the Royal London School of Medicine and Dentistry, and was at the forefront of the UK’s response to HIV and transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs). He was born in London, the son of Edmond Frederick Jeffries, an electrician, and Eileen Elizabeth Jeffries née Elton, a schoolteacher. Educated at William Ellis Grammar School in north London, Don went on to read medicine at the Royal Free Hospital. Although in the male minority at that time, he made his mark, being awarded the AM Bird scholarship for clinical studies in 1964. Along the way he also obtained an intercalated BSc in physiology.

The first 20 years of his career, at St Mary’s Hospital, were devoted to virology. He was the first candidate to obtain the MRCPath in this discipline in 1974 (he progressed to becoming an FRCPath in 1986). In 1990 he was appointed professor of medical microbiology at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, proceeding to become academic head of microbiology and virology, and head of service at the combined London and St Bartholomew’s Trust, a position he held until his retirement in 2006.

Initially his research interests encompassed herpes and hepatitis viruses, straying briefly into the area of sexually transmitted viral and chlamydial infection. The advent of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in the early 1980s saw Don emerge as one of the leading authorities on the treatment and management of HIV-infected patients. Working with the pharmaceutical company Roche, he was key in the development of saquinavir, the first protease inhibitor drug. Pharmaceutical success was not his only goal. On the humanitarian side, he introduced routine testing for the virus and was instrumental in organising the first same-day diagnostic clinic, with a dedicated nurse counsellor. His diplomatic skills were also put to good use to reassure staff at all levels of the infectivity of the virus in clinical settings in the early days of HIV/AIDS management – a skill that had implications far beyond the confines of St Mary’s and the Bart’s/London hospitals.

Unusually for a virologist, Don was appointed infection control consultant. In this role, he advised on the decontamination of surgical instruments potentially contaminated with blood-borne viruses. This role reflected an interest in the prion diseases, the TSEs, particularly variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Don chaired the Advisory Committee on Dangerous Pathogens/Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee joint working group and was key in the drafting of management guidelines. He was also vice chair of the CJD Incidents Panel and the Advisory Committee on Decontamination Science and Technology. Don coordinated research activities into aspects of TSE in the UK. His wise counsel, based on experience of previous discussions and discords in this emotive field, will be difficult to replace. Both professional and lay interest groups had cause to welcome his sage-like guidance.

Don was an accomplished and popular teacher. Whilst at St Mary’s, he developed a key role in the pastoral and medical needs of undergraduate and graduate students, and was ultimately appointed director of clinical studies. Despite his heavy workload at St Bartholomew’s, he continued his involvement with students by founding the BMedSci course at Bart’s/London. He further contributed to undergraduate education with contributions to Parveen J Kumar and Michael L Clark’s Clinical medicine: a textbook for medical students and doctors (London, Baillière Tindall, 1987) and by the useful, short guide Lecture notes on medical virology (Oxford, Blackwell Scientific, 1987).

Don’s contribution to the Royal College of Pathologists was as a council member and ultimately as a vice president (from 1999 to 2002). He also served on many specialist committees, including becoming chair of the examinations committee. Other key committee appointments at a national level included the Committee on Safety of Medicines, Expert Advisory Group on AIDS, the Advisory Committee on Dangerous Pathogens, and expert committees under the auspices of the Ministry of Defence and the Health and Safety Executive. Internationally, Don was an adviser on HIV and TSE exposure.

Don’s various strings of research yielded over 175 research articles, in addition to books and review articles. In 2001 he was awarded the Ellison Nash prize for outstanding contribution to the NHS. National honour (much to his surprise and delight) came with the award of a CBE in 2007.

Don was large in stature and large in ability. His commanding height, deep voice and friendly manner inspired confidence. An approachable counsellor and teacher, he was in many respects a gentle giant.

In his leisure time, Don was an accomplished fly fisherman and vegetable gardener. In former times he had a reputation as a formidable left-handed batsman for his village cricket team. He took a keen interest in natural history, enjoying hill walking and bird watching. Above all, Don enjoyed being with his family. He had a supportive wife, Mary Millicent née Bray, two sons, Paul and Richard, and one daughter, Caroline, and adored his grandchildren.

Don died suddenly and unexpectedly, leaving a void that will prove difficult to fill. Following an active career in academic and clinical virology, in his retirement he was still heavily involved in the epidemiology and control of prion diseases at a national and international level.

Geoff Ridgway

[The Telegraph 27 December 2011; Brit.med.J., 2012 344 922]

(Volume XII, page web)

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