Lives of the fellows

Julia Margaret (Dame) Polak

b.29 June 1939 d.11 August 2014
MD Buenos Aires(1964) MRCPath(1974) DSc Lond(1980) FCPath(1986) MRCP(1992) FRCP(1999)

Dame Julia Polak was a charismatic, pioneering research histopathologist. She defined both the endocrine system of the gut and showed the distribution of the peptidergic nervous system, both peripherally and centrally. She went on to be an early investigator in the new field of tissue engineering, accelerating progress and publicising its possibilities.

Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, of Jewish parents (Carlos Polak, a judge, and Rebeca Mactas Alpersohn, a leading writer), she married a fellow student, Daniel Catovsky, in 1960 and qualified as a doctor at the University of Buenos Aires in 1961. Julia then specialised in histopathology before moving to London in 1968, with her husband, Daniel, who subsequently became an eminent clinical haematologist.

Julia joined Anthony Pearse’s [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XI, p.442] histochemistry department at the Postgraduate Medical School of London (which she eventually inherited) and immediately showed her characteristic drive, insight and forcefulness in establishing how endocrine control systems actually worked. A stream of original publications followed and began a stellar international reputation. She pioneered advanced immunocytochemistry. Her instant preeminence was illustrated by her immunocytochemistry course, which packed the 600-seater Stamp lecture theatre at Imperial College. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Julia was extraordinarily productive. Her original publications topped 1,000 and included 16 papers in Nature and Science. She was also author of numerous books and reviews. She basically established the importance of peptide regulators in both the central and peripheral nervous systems, as neurotransmitters and circulating hormones. As a pathologist, her further investigations demonstrated their dysfunction played a key role in numerous diseases. In 1984 Julia was awarded a chair and in 1992 became head of the department of histochemistry. She also moved her focus from the gut to the lung in the early 1990s, and in particular worked on surgical specimens made available at Harefield Hospital by the surgeon Sir Magdi Yacoub.

An enthusiastic teacher, a string of visitors and trainees were supervised by Julia and they went on to populate and, indeed, administer histopathology departments round the world. Her public lectures were marked by clarity and originality. She had a forceful lecturing style and no one ever fell asleep. The theatre was always packed. Her motivation was to improve understanding by original research, at which Julia was very successful, and then make sure everyone could benefit from the advances by good exposition at major international meetings. Her findings have stood the test of time and have always been proved correct.

In 1995 her ‘asthma’ worsened and a diagnosis of pulmonary hypertension was made. Sir Magdi Yacoub preformed a heart-lung transplant, from which she made a stormy but eventually good recovery. Julia then redirected her research to the field of tissue engineering – using stem cells to help grow new tissues. Julia set up the Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine Centre at Imperial College, which made an immediate impact on this new field.

A famous staff round at Hammersmith Hospital involved a pathologist (Julia) presenting the histology of pulmonary hypertension (her own lung). This led an author, Rosemary Friedman, to write a novel Intensive care (Thirsk, House of Stratus, 2000), loosely based on Julia’s life story, which in turn led to the production of a successful play.

In 2003 Julia was appointed a DBE.

Julia was survived by her husband Daniel Catovsky and two sons, Elliot Sebastian and Michael David, but her daughter, Marina, a barrister, had tragically died in a road accident three years earlier, an event which greatly blighted her final years as they were close. At the time of her eventual death, from transplant complications, Julia was the longest surviving heart-lung transplant recipient.

Steve Bloom

[The Telegraph 8 September 2014 www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/11082090/Professor-Dame-Julia-Polak-obituary.html – accessed 20 September 2015; The Guardian 14 September 2014 www.theguardian.com/science/2014/sep/14/dame-julia-polak – accessed 20 September 2015; The Independent 19 September 2014 www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/julia-margaret-polak-scientist-whose-own-heartlung-transplant-inspired-her-to-make-breakthroughs-in-growing-organs-in-the-laboratory-9745524.html – accessed 20 September 2015; The Scotsman 19 September 2014 www.scotsman.com/news/obituaries/obituary-professor-dame-julia-polak-histochemist-1-3546383 – accessed 20 September 2015; The Lancet 384 (9951) 2014 1342 www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(14)61809-2/fulltext?rss=yes – accessed 20 September 2015; Pulm Circ. 2014 Dec; 4(4): 736. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4278634/]

(Volume XII, page web)

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