Lives of the fellows

Ralph (Sir) Kohn

b.9 December 1927 d.11 November 2016
Kt(2010) BSc Manch FRPharmS(1952) MSc(1953) PhD(1954) Hon FRAM(2003) Hon FMedSci(2003) Hon FRS(2006) Hon FBPhS(2008) Hon MAE(2008) Hon MusD Manch(2009) Hon FRCP(2009) Hon DSc Salford(2009) Hon DSc Buckingham(2014) Hon DMus Lond(2014)

Sir Ralph Kohn was a 20th and 21st century Renaissance man, polymath, committed pharmacologist, founder of the first independent clinical trials organisation and, in later life, a generous philanthropist, who also had a passionate love of music and a fine baritone voice. It is difficult in this short account to fully address his remarkable life and one cannot do better than encourage readers to obtain a copy of his autobiography, published in 2015, entitled Recital of a lifetime (Raphael Editions). It is a delight to read. Solo reminiscences alternate with conversations with the author’s closest musical colleague and accompanist, Graham Johnson. Important moments in the narrative are musically illustrated in an accompanying CD with extracts of Ralph’s own vocal recordings.

From the time he arrived in the UK with his parents Marcus Kohn and Lena Kohn (née Aschheim) on board the last ship to leave Amsterdam as the Nazis invaded the Netherlands, his life was one of remarkable achievement. Mastering English very quickly, he got into Salford Grammar School and from there obtained a scholarship to Manchester University and, after qualifying in pharmacology, another scholarship in 1954 from the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain to undertake postgraduate work in Rome. This was in a fabulous research institute, where two Nobel laureates, Daniel Bovet and Ernst Chain [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.94] of penicillin fame (who became a lifelong friend), were both working. From there he obtained another scholarship to take him to the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, led by Alfred Gilman, author of the definitive textbook on pharmacology at that time. But he never wanted to be an academic, confined to bench work, and, through Gillman’s good efforts, secured an appointment at Smith, Kline and French of Philadelphia. Sent by the company to London to investigate the possibility of developing new drugs, he greatly enjoyed travelling throughout Europe. Greatly helped by being able to speak four languages, he made many friends in the pharmacological, industrial and medical worlds and, after seven years, became managing director of a Swiss company, Robapharm, which specialised in organic bases for a series of medications. One of these was ossopan, containing calcium along with organic constituents of bone. This led to Ralph’s great friendship with Allan St John Dixon [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web], consultant rheumatologist at Taplow and then Bath, and the formation of the National Osteoporosis Society, with HRH the Duchess of Cornwall as president.

Seeing the need for properly organised clinical trials in the pharmaceutical industry, in 1971 Ralph decided it was time to set up his own organisation, forming the company Advisory Services (Clinical and General). This went from strength to strength, organising clinical trials in England and throughout Europe, based on the highest standards and with Ralph’s personal involvement in overseeing much of the work. The company was awarded the Queen’s Award for Export Achievement in 1990. Many drugs which had been overlooked were trialled and brought back into clinical development through his efforts. One of these, in which I was involved, was rifaximin for the treatment of hepatic encephalopathy, a drug initially developed in Italy. Even after the positive multicentre trial data was published in 2000, it was some years before the USA did further trials and established its place in the management of chronic liver disease.

In 1991, Ralph started on the third phase of his remarkable life, as a philanthropist. The Kohn Foundation, which he established, supports the arts, education, science and medicine. Many a medical meeting has been helped by sponsorship. But this was never given lightly and Ralph liked to take an active part in the organisation, usually giving an introductory speech most carefully prepared. He was awarded an honorary fellowship of the Royal Society in 2006 – of which he was inordinately proud – for his contributions to Society, which included support for the beautifully appointed Kohn centre in the Society’s Carlton House Terrace headquarters, which will be a lasting memorial. In the citation for the award of an honorary FRCP in 2009, I spoke of the work of the Kohn Foundation in initiating the Ernst Chain and Henry Dale amongst other awards and prizes for young scientists and medical researchers. His support of science was matched by notable contributions to the music world, including the Wigmore Hall Song Competition and the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage in 2000. His knighthood in 2010 was for services to science, music and charity.

Ralph married relatively late, at the age of 35, and extraordinarily well, as he described it in his biography, writing: ‘I have been extremely fortunate to have enjoyed a life partnership with a truly exceptional woman. Zahava and her family had survived the horrors of Nazi concentration camps.’ Ralph and Zahava (née Kanarek) had three children – Hephzibah (known as ‘Hephzi’), Michelle and Maxine, all making excellent careers and the family remaining very close, with five grandchildren at the time of Ralph’s demise.

I saw even more of Ralph in recent years when he accepted an invitation in 2011 to become a trustee of the Foundation for Liver Research. In addition, he was a great supporter of the Lancet Commission into Liver Disease in the UK, which I had set up in 2013, with the three annual reports to date being launched at meetings in the Kohn centre at the Royal Society, with Sir Ralph participating actively in the introduction, along with the editor of The Lancet, Richard Horton. His final act of generosity was the setting up of the Kohn room in the new building for the Institute of Hepatology, London, at Denmark Hill, King’s College Hospital. He was full of life at the opening ceremony led by HRH the Duke of York on 19 October 2016, but shortly after his health suddenly deteriorated. His many friends in the UK and throughout the world were deeply shocked and much saddened by his death.

Roger Williams

[The Telegraph 14 November 2016 – accessed 12 May 2017; The Jewish Chronicle 14 November 2016 – accessed 12 May 2017; Royal Academy of Music Sir Ralph Kohn, 1927-2016 – accessed 12 May 2017; Kellogg College University of Oxford In Memoriam Sir Ralph Kohn – accessed 12 May 2017]

(Volume XII, page web)

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