Lives of the fellows

Norman Cummings Nevin

b.10 June 1935 d.28 June 2014
BSc Belf(1957) MB BCh BAO(1960) MD(1965) MRCP(1968) FRCP Edin(1976) FRCPath(1981) FFCM(1981) FRCP(1990) OBE(2003)

Norman Cummings Nevin was professor of medical genetics at Queen’s University, Belfast, and a consultant in medical genetics at Belfast City Hospital. He was born and grew up in Belfast, the son of Joseph and Sarah Nevin. He completed his doctor of medicine thesis in 1964 on the pathology of cerebral concussion and head injuries, having held a John Dunville fellowship in pathology from 1961 to 1964. After Medical Research Council clinical fellowships at the Institute of Child health and Great Ormond Street, London, and subsequently at the population genetics unit in Oxford, from 1965 to 1967, Norman was appointed as a lecturer in human genetics at Queen’s Belfast in 1967. He rapidly obtained a joint consultant/senior lecturer post at the university in 1968 in human genetics – the first established post in genetics in Northern Ireland. He was awarded a personal chair in medical genetics in 1975 and an established chair in 1978.

Norman will be fondly remembered for putting Northern Ireland genetics on the map, having established the formal department of medical genetics at Queen’s in 1975 and leading it single handedly until the late 1990s. Before that it was a small but growing part of the department of epidemiology and social medicine, and he succeeded Alan Stevenson [Munk’s Roll, Vol.X, p.469] and Sir Peter Froggatt, who established the early foundations of the discipline. After establishing the department, it grew and now has seven consultants and a large team of genetic counsellors and laboratory scientists.

Norman was a gifted teacher and his lectures to medical students were fascinating for their apparent simplicity, and he inspired a generation of doctors, several of whom went on to gain MDs or PhDs in genetic aspects of their own subject. He had a great warmth and kindness when dealing with patients with difficult genetic disorders. He would often draw out the complex genetics in a diagram on a page for them and could write upside down – several patients marvelled at this skill, often only surpassed when mothers of children with Down syndrome found out he too had bilateral simian creases on both palms (as had Tony Blair and some other prominent people) and some remarked that their child might too grow up to be a professor. He always encouraged hope in difficult cases and dealt with a wide remit of cases from early pregnancy, paediatrics and complex late onset adult genetic diseases.

He was particularly interested in spina bifida and Down syndrome and helped develop the concept of periconceptual folic acid supplementation for the prevention of spina bifida with researchers in Leeds in the 1970s.

He was a man of profound Christian faith. His inaugural lecture in 1976 was entitled ‘Born unto trouble’, taking verses six and seven from chapter five of the book of Job. He had an expert knowledge of the Old Testament and, being in genetics in the 1990s in a period of great change and ethical uncertainty, was able to provide a guiding hand in the direction of the specialty, serving on several government bodies, including the Human Genetics Commission and chairing the Gene Therapy Advisory Committee from 1996 to 2003. He was awarded the OBE for services to gene therapy research in June 2003. He was treasurer, member of council, secretary and later president (from 1991 to 1992) of the Clinical Genetics Society.

He often appeared on television and radio, and always had interesting reflections on moral insights from his work. He saw no conflict between his Christian faith and his scientific interests.

He will be remembered for his work on spina bifida and Down syndrome, and for encouraging a generation of students to learn molecular medicine through his great lecturing skills. He was survived by his wife, Jean, whom he married in 1961, their daughter, Glynis, their son, Paul, and two grandchildren.

Patrick Morrison

[Belfast Telegraph 9 July 2014 www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/Obituaries/obituary-worldfamous-geneticist-who-led-research-into-spina-bifida-30416579.html – accessed 23 February 2015; Genetics and Medicine Historical Network www.genmedhist.info/interviews/Nevin – accessed 23 February 2015; ID Centre for Intelligent Design Prof Norman Nevin, OBE – An Obituary www.c4id.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=260:prof-norman-c-nevin-obe-an-obituary&catid=52:frontpage&Itemid=1 – accessed 23 February 2015]

(Volume XII, page web)

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