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Neuromuscular Disease Expert John Newsom-Davis, MD, Dies

John Michael Newsom-Davis, MD, a British neurologist and professor renowned as an authority on neuromuscular disease, died Aug. 24 in a road traffic accident while vacationing in Romania, at the age of 74. (He would have turned 75 on Oct. 18.)


Dr. John Newsom-Davis (1932–2007)

Dr. Newsom-Davis served as a Royal Air Force Pilot during his National Service before pursuing neurology training at the University of Cambridge, the Middlesex Hospital Medical School, and the National Hospital, Queen Square, London.

He served as a consultant neurologist at the Royal Free Hospital and National Hospital for Nervous Diseases for a decade until his appointment in 1980 as MRC Research Professor of Clinical Neurology at the Royal Free Hospital and the Institute of Neurology. Starting in 1988, he served as head of both clinical neurology and the Myasthenia Gravis Unit at Oxford, before stepping down to concentrate on research in 1998.

Dr. Newsom-Davis became interested in myasthenia gravis (MG), related neuromuscular diseases, and neuroimmunology after caring for a MG patient in the Queen Square ICU. He established a research partnership with Angela Vincent, MBBS, currently honorary consultant in the immunology neurosciences group at John Radcliffe Hospital and head of clinical neurology at the University of Oxford, and secured funding for a small research unit at Oxford, which has since become the leading center in the UK for the investigation and treatment of MG.


Dr. Newsom-Davis' laboratory contributions were profound. According to Dr. Vincent, his work demonstrated that patients with MG had antibodies to their own muscle endplates, which confirmed that MG is an immune system disease. He also translated clinical research into treatment possibilities for patients: Dr. Newsom-Davis was the first to use plasma exchange, instead of just steroids, as an initial treatment until the immune suppression began to work, she said.

“As a scientist and physician, John was a giant in the field of autoimmune neurological disorders. He and his colleagues made seminal contributions to the understanding of myasthenia gravis, neuromyotonia, limbic encephalitis, to name only a few,” said Henry J. Kaminski, MD, chairman in the department of neurology and psychiatry at Saint Louis University.

Dr. Kaminski served with Dr. Newsom-Davis on the Executive Committee of the MGTX clinical trial, a five-year, NIH-funded international investigation of thymectomy for MG.

“Such trials had been on the drawing board for decades, but never brought beyond simple planning stages. Through John's talent, in-depth knowledge, and personality he made it into a reality,” Dr. Kaminski told Neurology Today.

“He had an amazing ability to work through problems and with people, not even showing a hint of frustration when roadblocks would arise,” said Gil I. Wolfe, MD, FAAN, Dr. Bob and Jean Smith Foundation Distinguished Chair Professor of Neurology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas, TX, and deputy clinical coordinator of the MGTX study. “To me, John was the ideal role model, personifying what an academic neurologist would aspire to on a clinical, investigational, and personal level.”

Said Gary Cutter, PhD, a biostatistician at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health and co-principal investigator of the MGTX study: “John was the essence of an English gentleman, teacher, scholar, researcher, wise man, and most importantly, friend.

“In my view it's an incomparable loss only tolerated by the fact that I was among the lucky who was able to have the honor of working with this true scholar and scientist,” he said.

Dr. Newsom-Davis was the president of the Association of British Neurologists from 1999 to 2001 and is a founding member of the Academy of Medical Sciences. In 1991, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, serving on the Council from 1996 to 1997. He was also elected Foreign Associate Member of the Institute of Medicine in the US in 2001.

Since 2001 Dr. Newsom-Davis was a member of the AAN Membership Committee; from 2005 to 2006 he chaired the AAN International Subcommittee; and from 2004 to 2005 he served on an AAN International Task Force. Dr. Newsom-Davis was the recipient of the Robert H. Wartenberg Lecture in 2003.

From 1997 to 2004, he served as editor-in-chief of Brain. “He transformed that journal, making it one of the best for clinical and disease-related neuroscience,” said Timothy A. Pedley, MD, Henry and Lucy Moses Professor of Neurology and chairman of the department of neurology at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York. “He was a wonderful teacher and colleague, and a warm, humorous, and generous friend to colleagues in the US and around the world. He will be sorely missed.”

“Of all the good friends that I have had over the years, none can completely measure up to John,” said Alfred Jaretzki III, MD, MGTX surgical coordinator and professor emeritus of clinical surgery at the College of Physician and Surgeons at Columbia University in New York City. “He became my teacher, my tutor, my advisor, my confidant, and most importantly a close friend. He will be missed by many and especially missed by me.”

Dr. Newsom-Davis is survived by his wife, Rosemary, an educational psychologist; children Amelia, Imogen, and Tom; and seven grandchildren.