Geoffrey, who started life as a working-class tailor’s son and became a brilliant, world-class, neuroscientist and pioneer of spinal cord injury science, has died at the age of 77. He leaves behind him a lasting research legacy and an active group, continuing his work, but in life, also succeeded in his ambition to not lose connection to the people and culture from which he came.
He once said : "It’s easy to be a famous scientist – I don’t have to do anything at all. It’s a badge that people just give you. The most difficult thing in life is to be a Human Being. And every badge of honour, degree and accolade you get, pulls you down. None of them raise you up. They all pull you down. The most important thing is to be a Human Being and you never quite achieve it.”
Geoffrey was wrong and was both a rare and magnificent Human Being.
"They were brought up in the slums of Leeds. They slept in the same bed, head-to-tail like sardines." Geoffrey remembered his Grandfather as a man who had : "Two activities in his life. One was to gamble away any money he had. The other was to generate the children who were to keep him in his future life." He and his wife Ada had 12 children.
Geoffrey recalled the Leeds of his youth as : “In my day it was a smoky industrial city and my father’s main motive at the weekend was to go out and enjoy nature.” Of Harry he recalled : "My father, who was one of the big influencers in my life, was a tailor in a factory and hated every minute of it. He was interested in all forms of nature and used to take me to a woodland and he would just sit there and look at the colour of a fallen leaf, or a stone, or a fish in the stream; he was just so full of wonder and he passed that on to me. I thought, even back then, that these things were just so amazing. And now all that time has passed I find them even more wonderful than I did then."
Geoffrey remembered his father's lifelong fascination with mathematics and astronomy and his observation that : "Even on the darkest nights there’s always some light in the sky. However little it is, the sky never gets completely dark."
Clearly, a precocious child, he recalled that, aged 7, he tried, and failed, to find proof of God's existence and his life as a nascent scientist began when he was 8 years old : "For me, the story began in the cold winter of 1947. The whole hillside in Meanwood, Yorkshire, had been covered with a thick, sloping blanket of snow that was, like a glacier, weeping great runnels of melt water, joining, separating and again re-joining, flowing into the ice-cold waters of the stream below. I wondered how the sticklebacks and minnows in that stream would survive. How could such tiny living things resist the great extremes of nature? In a word, I became a naturalist. What else is a naturalist but someone who looks at the natural world, questions, wonders and admires?"
A bright boy, from a very modest background where Harry's take home pay was £3.10 shillings a week, Geoffrey passed the selection to secondary school in 1949 and attended Roundhay Grammar School for Boys where he feared physical training but had "the most marvellous teachers. Not only in school but within my family" and recalled : "The best teachers are those that teach with passion." He left school as a well-rounded sixth former and confessed his debt to the school when he said : "I’m inspired by music, poetry, writing, art, architecture and many cultures."
Apart from his father Harry, there was another family member who exercised influence on him, his selfless 'Unky Myer', with whom he later developed a deep friendship, who had financially held the family together and had been instrumental in supporting his younger brother Jack through his medical degree at Oxford and Jeremy, who had attended Pembroke College, Oxford on a scholarship and graduated with a first class degree in Classics in 1915. He then left Britain, joined and rose high in the Indian Civil Service, was appointed Secretary to the Finance Department, knighted in the year that Geoffrey was born and served as a member of the Viceroy of India's Executive Council during the Second World War. Geoffrey later reflected on the effect he and his father had on him when he said : "They influenced me positively and negatively. They spoke as one voice. They wanted me to be ambitious in terms of my own career."
"When I was a third year medical student my mentor, Max Cowan, persuaded me to do a PhD project on the connections of the hippocampus. Through the microscope, I was able to get a peek into one tiny nexus in the vast tracery of connections that make up the most amazing and most elaborate structure that evolution has produced – the brain." It followed that, after completing his studies and qualifying as a medical doctor in 1962, he opted to stay on at the university to work as a research neuroscientist.
He later reflected that he "trickled into" neuroscience. First he used new technology like the electron microscope : "Sanford Palay, in 1955, had been the first to see synapses, the elaborate, jewel-like arrangements at the point where one nerve cell makes contact with another." What drew him in "was the idea that the brain forms new connections" which a was a revolutionary concept and required Raisman resolution because "no one liked that idea and I had to fight for 15 years to prove it." If that wasn't radical enough, he was "already onto the second idea, whilst they still hadn’t believed the first, and that was if the brain makes new connections then why can’t we repair connections ? I am talking about something that begun in 1963."
Two years later, at the age of 26, he was ready to publish his first research paper, but it was not until 1969 that it was published and received only "partial acclaim” because of scepticism towards his concept that the nervous system could repair itself. In answer to the question : "Why did he stick at it ?" He replied : "If you discover something that was new and that you thought was terribly important and everyone’s telling you to drop it, would you drop it? No. I’m no different. What made me stick at it was my thought that it’s important, it’s new and exciting and I’ve been the first one to see it and like a hen that lays an egg you want to cluck – you don’t want to hide it. Vanity is the motive."
Most of Geoffrey's intellectual journey took place the National Institute for Medical Research in Mill Hill where he became and remained for 30 years, Head of of the Division of Neurobiology and at the age of 46 in 1985 he had a breakthrough sited in the nose when he : "showed that at the point where the olfactory nerves enter the brain, there is a special type of glial cell. These cells are called olfactory ensheathing cells (OECs). Seen through the electron microscope, the arrangements of the OECs suggest they exert a unique door-opening effect at the surface of the brain."
"In a life of research, there are a few magical moments. One of mine came in 1996 in the early hours of a mid-winter night in Northwest London. The National Institute for Medical Research was deserted, but I was impatient to follow the behaviour of rats that had received transplanted olfactory glial cells into the spot where we had made a tiny area of damage in their spinal cords."
"After the first few tries, one rat seemed to make a tentative movement of the neglected paw. I blinked and discounted it, but the hairs on the back of my neck began to rise. And then, after a few more ineffective tries, the paw came out again, tentatively, very little and very slowly. There is a rapport between the tester and the trained rat. Each tries to please the other. This time the rat paused and looked up at me with an expression that looked for all the world like amazement. Then I tightened my grip on the noodle. At once, the rat tightened its grip and pulled the noodle forcibly away from me."
Geoffrey was now 57 years old and this moment came 33 years after he had started his journey and he said : "When the time comes to reflect on a life in research, this experience will be one of the moments that forever remain, the sense of "eureka", that at last, perhaps, I was seeing repair of an injury to the spinal cord, that the long-sought goal might be achievable."
By the year 2000 he had been admitted as a Fellow to the Academy of Medical Sciences and his ground-breaking work had been recognised by his election as Fellow of the Royal Society in 2001 and the Royal Society of Arts in 2002.
Geoffrey recalled : "I had been working for years on rat models of spinal cord injury and believed I had a cure. Dr Pawel Tabakow, a young neurosurgeon in Poland, had been shadowing my work for many years. A consultant neurosurgeon in the Department of Neurosurgery at Wroclaw University Hospital, he was determined to try out my methods and work out how to scale up from our microscopic rat injuries to the amount of damage suffered by his patient."
After Darek had the complex surgery carried out by Dr Tabakow, based on Geoffrey's guidelines, within a month, he started to recover muscle mass in the leg and sensation, then after intensive rehabilitative physiotherapy, was able to walk with a frame which he said was “an incredible feeling. When you can’t feel almost half your body, you are helpless, but when it starts coming back it’s as if you were born again.”
On the significance of the operation, Geoffrey was philosophical : "Only repeating this operation will tell us if this 'miracle' can work again. Yet there is about these events a frisson, a tingling. What if the time has come for spinal injury to be cured? And after that, what about all the other injuries where nerve fibres are disconnected – such as stroke, blindness, deafness? Do we stand on the threshold of history? If we do, there is an immense mountain to be climbed."
"For me, this story began with that sense of wonder at the sticklebacks and minnows in Meanwood Beck. The first of nature's gifts to me was the observation of double synapses. From there, half a century of winding paths led through the olfactory system to a patient getting out of a wheelchair. I could not have anticipated the outcome. What led me on was the sense of wonder at nature, and whoever studies nature enters a magical world, a world of enchantment and delight. To anyone thinking of starting on their journey of discovery, remember Longfellow :
A boy's will is the wind's will,
And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts."
When he reflected on the path of his career in neuroscience, he indicated that it had been far from smooth : "I’ve been fired 3 times, retired several times. I wear these like badges of honour – I am quite proud of them in a way."
“ My only regret is to be shuffled eternally out of the place after one small scrappy peep at the big show.”
and considered the best advice he received was from Uncle Myer :
“Let others be happy”
Geoffrey made an appeal for 'Spinal Cord Research' on behalf of the UK Stem Cell Foundation :