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BMJ. 2007 April 21; 334(7598): 857.
PMCID: PMC1853176

John Swanson Beck

John Swanson Beck, himself the son of a doctor, was an outstanding medical student at Glasgow University. Graduating in 1953, he gained the much prized Brunton Medal, which is awarded to the outstanding medical graduate of the year. The medical world was his oyster, and he could have chosen any specialty, but he very quickly decided to pursue his career in pathology, where his early promise flowered and he became one of a small group of outstanding Scottish medical scientists committed to taking pathology in a new direction. He set himself to move the emphasis from morbid anatomy towards an understanding of living systems and diagnosis and treatment of disease.

His pioneering studies were in immunology in which he established the importance of antibodies directed against the body's own tissues. This was a new area and helped to open up new approaches to the so called autoimmune diseases that were previously not understood. For this work, he was awarded a doctorate of medicine from the University of Glasgow in 1964.

John managed to combine excellence in medical research with a passionate commitment to the delivery of top quality diagnostic services in the north and east of Scotland, and a dedication to the teaching of undergraduates. After spending eight years in Aberdeen, working under the renowned pathologist Sir Alistair Currie, he was appointed to the chair of pathology at the University of Dundee in 1971. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1984. He published many articles over a broad range of topics, including research, medical education, and design of diagnostic services. One of his last articles written with R A Brown of the mathematics department, Dundee University, for the BMJ deals with a topic of current concern—namely, medical statistics on personal computers.

I learned something of his encyclopaedic knowledge of pathology when we shared examining duties at Glasgow University in the mid-1970s. At that time, a small number of possible “distinction” students were exposed to a particularly searching viva-voce exam. To listen to John exploring the fine detail of one of the more obscure pathological conditions with a really bright student was a remarkable experience! Rapid fire questions of ascending difficulty…… There was absolutely no doubt that a distinction, if awarded, was indeed thoroughly well deserved.

John Beck's advice on policy was greatly respected, and within the United Kingdom he played a major role on review committees of the Medical Research Council, the Chief Scientist's Office, and the National Biologist Standards Board. But John's reputation for excellence and wise counsel extended overseas and his advice was much sought after in medical schools across the world. It, therefore, gave him particular pleasure in his retirement in 1993 to accept the appointment of foundation dean and chief executive of the International Medical College in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He brought tremendous enthusiasm to the task. His mission was to set up de novo the structures, staffing, and collaborations required to establish medical and pharmacy programmes of comparable standard to those in Europe, North America, and Australia. As principal of Strathclyde, I became one of the collaborators in the pharmacy programme. I, therefore, observed at close quarters the academic, diplomatic, and intensely human qualities that John brought to the task, which was a great success.

However, John and his wife, Marion, were very happy to return to their cottage in Kirriemuir in 1997, where they enjoyed another phase of “retirement” during which John contributed much to the work of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, serving as programme convener until 2003. They thoroughly enjoyed the countryside and especially the bird life that surrounded them. Gardening and walking were John's favourite pastimes. Being back in Scotland also meant more time with their children, John and Patricia, and their three grandchildren, John, Catriona, and Charlotte.

John Beck, doctor, scientist, teacher, adviser to institutions and governments, gained many academic awards in recognition of his work. More than that, however, he was held in the highest regard by friends and colleagues across the world. He will be sadly missed.


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