Lives of the fellows

Helen Christina Grant

b.11 May 1922 d.14 March 2012
MB BS Lond(1946) MRCP(1948) MD(1951) FRCP(1975)

Helen Christina Grant, known as ‘Wendy’, a neuropathologist at Middlesex Hospital, was one of the first scientists to warn that BSE could be incubated in humans and, a vociferous fighter for the truth, sustained a long running battle with the promoters of boxing due to her conviction that the sport caused long term brain damage. Also an exceptionally gifted teacher, she taught future generations of neurologists, neurosurgeons and neruropathologists, many of whom achieved great eminence in their field.

Born in Ealing, London, she was the daughter of Donald and Irene Grant. Her father, known as ‘Donnie’, was a lecturer in world affairs and former theology student, who had been imprisoned during the First World War for being a conscientious objector. When she was a child her parents were working for relief agencies helping refugees and she was therefore educated partly in France, Austria (where she attended the Schwartzvaldschule in Vienna) and New Zealand. Finally she went to Bedales where she became head girl. She studied medicine at Cambridge and then at University College London and University College Hospital (UCH).

After qualifying in 1946, she did house jobs at UCH, the West Middlesex and Whittington hospitals from 1947 to 1949. She then became casualty officer and registrar at UCH for the next six years, and, after that, Graham scholar in pathology. In 1961 she was appointed a consultant neuropathologist at the West End Hospital and, in 1967, a senior lecturer in neuropathology at the Middlesex Hospital. Three years later, in 1970, she became a consultant neuropathologist at the Middlesex. She originally retired in 1982 but, after a three year break, she moved to the Charing Cross Hospital as a senior lecturer and honorary consultant for another four years. It was in this latter part of her career that she was to rise to public prominence.

In the mid 1980s, a junior doctor, Tim Holt, published an article in the British Medical Journal suggesting that cow brains were being sold for human consumption. Grant, by then retired, was an expert in so called ‘slow viruses’ (ie those associated with diseases having long incubation periods). She was horrified to learn that cattle brains were being added to food products such as meat pies as she had read all the literature about scrapie and was convinced that bovine spongiform encephalitis (BSE), a fatal neurodegenerative disease in cattle, could be easily transferred to humans by eating contaminated food appearing in the form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD). Her explanation for scrapie not affecting humans was simple – sheep brains were not used in the food chain. Having performed autopsies on six victims of CJD, she wrote to the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, asking for a Government inquiry to be held. Her letter was ignored.

In early 1989 the government issued a report essentially concluding that the risks were negligible. That same day she appeared on the BBC warning of the risks of possible outbreaks of CJD and pointing out that ‘Who knows? Some of us may be incubating it already’. Along with other scientists who were similarly concerned, she was vilified in the press, treated with hostility by Ministry of Agriculture officials and accused of being ‘out of date’. She described looking with ‘horror at how the good reputations of dissenting scientists in the field were systematically undermined’. Refusing to give up the fight, she was shocked to discover, in 1994, that the brains of calves of under six months old were still being allowed into the food chain – it was to take another two years for government scientists to confirm that cows could pass on BSE to their calves. A public enquiry was finally launched in 1997 and, when the report was issued three years later, she was completely vindicated but took little pleasure from this because of the deaths that had occurred since her early warnings.

A lifelong, passionate opponent of boxing, she drew opprobrium on herself from the sport’s promoters when she revealed that her research proved that neurological damage in boxers came in the area of the head most likely to be punched. On the degeneration of the boxer Cassius Clay (alias Muhammad Ali) into an incoherent wreck after retiring, she responded to those who claimed it was due to suffering from Parkinson’s that if he was indeed suffering from Parkinson’s it was a ‘convenient coincidence’. She said ‘boxing is bad for the brain full stop’.

A keen photographer, some of her images were considered good enough to be made into postcards and sold commercially. She also loved the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and enjoyed going swimming.

In 1945 she married Alick Elithorn [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web] and they had a son and daughter. The marriage was dissolved in 1970. When she died, suffering from pneumonia, she was survived by her son, Justin, and younger brother, Donald, a GP in London. Her daughter Clare, also medically qualified and planning to become a radiologist, predeceased her.

RCP editor

[BMJ 2012 345 4769; The Independent; The Daily Telegraph; Under the Scope - all accessed 9 November 2015]

(Volume XII, page web)

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