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BMJ. 2007 October 20; 335(7624): 830.
PMCID: PMC2034707

John Michael Newsom-Davis

Enabled the understanding and treatment of myasthenia gravis

Some neurologists and neuroscientists have made outstanding contribution to basic science, and others to treatment. John Newsom-Davis did both, and his work is credited with transforming the lives of people with myasthenia gravis and related autoimmune brain diseases. He contributed to the discovery that myasthenia gravis was caused by antibodies and, with Anthony Pinching and Keith Peters, showed that plasmapheresis could produce a profound, though short lived, remission. He went on to develop effective treatment using immunosuppressive drugs.

John Newsom-Davis was born in Harpenden. His father, managing director of the Davis gas cooker company, and mother, a surgeon's daughter, sent him to Sherborne School, which he didn't much enjoy. He followed this with national service, where he learnt to pilot Meteor fighter planes, which gave him great pleasure and pride. He was offered a place at Cambridge to read English and history but changed his mind and decided to follow his grandfather into medicine, which meant cramming science.

He did his preclinical years at Pembroke College and his clinical training at the Middlesex. He qualified in 1960 and remained at the Middlesex as neurology registrar before moving in 1967 to the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases as resident medical officer and lecturer in neurology. Here he was influenced by Michael Kremer and Tom Sears. He and Sears did experimental work on the physiological control of breathing, often using themselves as guinea pigs. He spent 1969-70 at Cornell Medical Center, New York, investigating the central pathways involved in breathing with Fred Plum.

He returned to England as consultant neurologist at Queen Square and the Royal Free and started the myasthenia research that defined his career. The disease was known to be caused by autoimmunity, and he pioneered plasmapheresis, which gave short term remission. After others discovered that the autoantibodies were directed against receptors at the neuromuscular junction, he characterised them and found that they are produced by the thymus in response to inappropriate stimuli. He and his team went on to uncover the immunology of various types of myasthenia, including rare inherited forms. He then demonstrated that these diseases could be controlled by immunosuppressive treatments.

In 1980 he became the first MRC Clinical Research professor at the Royal Free. In 1987 he was appointed to the Action Research chair of clinical neurology at Oxford, and his research team moved to Oxford with him. From then onwards, writes Angela Vincent in the Independent (18 September), he built up clinical neuroscience there, including establishing a world-leading centre for magnetic resonance functional brain imaging. His official retirement in 1999 made no difference to his activity, and he continued his research, and seeing patients.

Newsom-Davis was one of the few medical scientists to be made an FRS. He was a founder fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences, a former president of the Association of British Neurologists (1999-2000), an honorary member of the American Academy of Neurology, and an elected foreign member of the Institute of Medicine of the US National Academy of Sciences. He received many medals and awards and was made CBE in 1996.

He was an active head of the biomedical section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and also gave his time generously to the Royal College of Physicians, Medical Research Council, Association of British Neurologists, Myasthenia Gravis Association, and Muscular Dystrophy Group. Under his editorship, the journal Brain was one of the first to introduce electronic processing and online publication.

In July 2005 he was awarded $5m from the US National Institute of Neurology Disorders and Stroke to lead an international trial to determine whether all patients with myasthenia gravis needed to undergo thymectomy. This is standard treatment, but no one knows whether it is justified in patients who do not have a thymus tumour. The trial compares prednisone alone with prednisone and thymectomy. He said at the start that previous studies were less than rigorous in patient selection and scientific design. He and his US collaborators aimed to recruit 200 patients in four continents and follow up each for three years.

As part of this study he visited a neurological clinic in Bucharest. He and his wife then left to visit ancient frescoed monasteries in Moldovia, driving on dangerous roads. He was killed in a car crash.

He leaves a wife, Rosemary; two daughters and one son; and seven grandchildren.

John Michael Newsom-Davis, professor of neurology, Royal Free Hospital, 1980-7, and Oxford, 1987-98 (b 1932; q Middlesex Hospital 1960; FRS, CBE), d 24 August 2007.


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