Born: 30 March, 1922, in Greenock. Died: 10 May, 2009, in Glasgow, aged 87.
JOHN Alexander ("Iain") Simpson played a major role in the modern development of neurosciences in Scotland, particularly in Glasgow, and was the esteemed international authority on myasthenia gravis. Myasthenia gravis is a chronic disease in which the muscles of the body become progressively paralysed. It is caused by an allergy to one's own neuromuscular tissues and the immunological abnormality can be corrected with drugs and procedures. Previously, it had a high mortality and morbidity but with early diagnosis and modern treatment the outlook is good.
Iain came from a long Scottish lineage which includes the 18th-century political cartoonist James Gillray.
Iain is a good example of serendipity and major advances in science. It was while he held a Medical Research Council travelling fellowship at the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases at Queen Square, London, in 1960 that he observed the increased association of myasthenia gravis with other diseases, believed at that time to be autoimmune in aetiology.
He published his hypothesis in the Scottish Medical Journal. It was the seminal paper which directed research into the immunological aetiology of myasthenia gravis. It was logical therefore that Iain should further his interest in and head the department of neurology, where the main research interest was muscle diseases.
At the time he became head of the department, there had been enormous changes in the structure of neuroscience in Scotland with the newly organised Institute of Neurological Sciences being formed at Glasgow, to which Professor Bryan Jennett, professor of neurosurgery and Hume Adams professor of neuropathology, were the other main contributors.
Iain had come from Edinburgh, where he had been chief of neurology and had built up an active department with a sound reputation.
It was obvious that he was ideally equipped to develop neurology in Glasgow and his department there became a showpiece in 1967 for the International Congress of Electromyography, a subject that he excelled in and contributed to. This was the beginning of many occasions where Iain and Elizabeth would generously entertain visiting neurologists and other neuroscientists. Indeed, Iain's kindness to obscure authors often had grateful individuals plan their journey so that it included a visit to Glasgow and the warm reception from the Simpsons.
He was appointed the James Watson lecturer of the Royal Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow, a Honeyman Gillespie lecturer at Edinburgh, an Abbott lecturer at Newcastle, and later a fellow of the Royal Society at Edinburgh. Among further appointments was that of honorary consultant neurologist to the army and to the civil service commission, chairman of the Scottish Council for the Neurological Services and of the Scottish Epilepsy Association, and a member of the Research Committee of the Muscular Dystrophy Group of Great Britain.
Iain was a good general physician and wrote on and studied not only myasthenia gravis but the chorea related to hypothyroidism, the dermatological alterations and hypocalcaemia, and a number of findings related to abnormal nerve conduction velocities. He was among the first who noted the neurophysiological abnormalities of the Eaton Lambert syndrome.
Iain was in demand for guest lectures and accepted invitations to visit departments throughout Australia, India, Europe and Japan. He contributed to now classic textbooks of muscle and neurological disease and peer-reviewed several journals. He had more than 94 original papers on neuromuscular neurological diseases published.
He was of the "old school" and looked after his patients well, with their becoming part of his family where he could recount their marriages and achievements, and he kept in contact with several for many years.
He certainly was not bombastic and was a kind, caring, decent fellow of whom it was an honour to be considered a friend. He delighted in making solid and sound diagnoses of extremely rare diseases and he imparted this knowledge so that his students were, like Byron's hero, wax to receive and marvel to retain. Patients with myasthenia gravis could expect to see him at any time of the day or night, as he took a personal interest in the surgical and neurological outcome of their treatment.
He was very fortunate in having a wife such as Elizabeth, who shared with him a good sense of humour and many interests. They entertained the department and one can fondly reflect and reminisce upon the many carefree, delightful hours where the food and wine were of the most delectable quality and quantity. He would move among the gatherings and this perhaps will explain the warm, friendly regard people had for him and how easily he made friends.
Elizabeth provided for him a solid, happy household which was a model of contentment and warmth. Everyone would have to agree that they were ideally suited and happy. Elizabeth was a keen and expert gardener, and imparted advice that often led to lasting friendships. The beautiful specimen of osmunda regalis she gave me many years ago is a fond reminder of her kindness.
Iain's family continue the medical tradition. He leaves behind two sons, Keith and Neill, who are both doctors, and a daughter, Guendolen, an ICU nurse. He was a proud grandfather to his nine grandchildren. No account of Iain would be complete without a description of his addiction to and pleasure in sailing and Scottish fiddle music. He once told me that for him, the greatest pleasures were drinking hot soup followed by a large quantity of malt whisky after a successful sail.
Iain left behind a department in excellent health and his advice and warm friendship will be sadly missed.