Obituary: Prof Matthew Kaufman

Matthew Kaufman
Matthew Kaufman
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Professor Matthew Kaufman MA MB ChB PhD DSc ScD FRCP FRCS FRS Edin, professor of anatomy and stem cell pioneer.

Born: 29 September, 1942, in London. Died: 11 August, 2013, in Edinburgh, aged 70.

prof Matthew Kaufman’s decision to change careers from medicine to academia led to him becoming one of the pioneers whose research paved the way for stem cell therapy.

Along with a colleague, who later received the Nobel prize for medicine, he was the first to culture the embryonic stem cells of mice and cultivate them in a laboratory.

A world authority on mouse embryology, he went on to produce The Atlas of Mouse Development, regarded internationally as the standard textbook on the subject, plus a panoply of other papers and books, many on medical history including anatomy teaching in Edinburgh in the 18th and 19th centuries.

He had begun his career in the Scottish capital, where he qualified in medicine and practised obstetrics for a time, before working on in vitro fertilisation research and later moving permanently into academic life at Cambridge University. When asked why he switched careers he always replied, with a wry smile: “I play with mice and virgin birth.”

Born at London’s Hackney Hospital, to Ben and Dora Kaufman, he attended Westminster City Grammar School before coming north to Edinburgh University in 1960. He qualified in 1967 and spent the next year in Birmingham, in surgery and medicine, before becoming a senior house officer at the Luton and Dunstable Hospital where he met young staff nurse and future wife, Claire – whisking her off on a date in his vast vintage Armstrong Siddeley.

He then returned to Edinburgh, working in obstetrics at the Simpson Memorial Maternity Pavilion for another year before deciding his future lay in academia. Drawn to reproductive biology, he spent a short period as a research associate at the Institute of Animal Genetics at Edinburgh University where he worked on aspects of IVF.

By 1970 he was at Cambridge doing a PhD in physiology. He remained at Cambridge until 1985, apart from two years in Israel, supported by Royal Society and Medical Research Council fellowships, when he worked on parthenogenesis – virgin birth – in mice.

At Cambridge he was a demonstrator, then lecturer, in the university’s anatomy department, becoming a fellow and director of studies in medicine and a fellow and lecturer in anatomy at King’s College.

His friend, Emeritus Professor Jonathan Bard, described him as an extremely skilful embryologist, able to dissect, culture and manipulate mouse embryos at their earliest stages.

In 1981 these skills were to the fore in his collaboration with Dr Martin Evans which provided the methodology for the establishment for the first time of pluripotential stem cells in tissue culture. Initially named EK (Evans-Kaufman) cells, but now known as ES (embryonic stem) cells, this immensely important work laid the foundations for subsequent studies in stem cell biology, chimera formation and cloning.

However, before their longer-term significance was realised, he moved on to his real love, mouse developmental anatomy. Meanwhile Evans explored and developed the use of ES cells, leading to his Nobel prize and Kaufman’s contribution faded into the background.

“The success of mouse ES cell technology naturally led to attempts to obtain human ES cells so that they could be used to repair and replace faulty tissues,” said Prof Bard. “The difficulties in doing this are formidable and reaching the stage where they are available has taken more than a decade but the field is now confident that the basics are now in place for a new generation of therapeutic treatments.

“It is rare that pure research in the lab leads to a single major technological industry. The distinction of the work of Matthew Kaufman and those mouse embryologists in the late 1970s is that it led to two such advances, with the second taking more than 30 years to achieve. It is sad that Kaufman, trained as a doctor, did not live to see the full medical fruits of his early work.”

His subsequent work, though, was also of great significance. After his move to Edinburgh University in 1985, as professor of anatomy and head of department, he collaborated with developmental biologists and computer scientists to prepare 3-D reconstructions of many of the stages of mouse development, illustrated in his Atlas, published in 1992. The book is regarded worldwide by developmental biologists working with mice embryos as the standard reference text on the species.

Kaufman also explored both normal embryonic development and abnormalities that occur when an embryo is subjected to chromosomal disorders and stress factors such as alcohol. In 1988 he won the Evian Health Award for research into the effects of alcohol on embryonic development.

In 2006 he was made an honorary research fellow of leading genetic research facility, the Jackson Laboratory in Maine, USA, receiving an award from the lab for his major contributions to the understanding and teaching of mouse embryology.

During his time at Edinburgh he had also been curator of the university’s anatomy collections and he rediscovered its collection of 18th and 19th century life and death masks, curating important examples to exhibit.

Elected Emeritus Professor of anatomy in 2008, he was said to be incapable of not working and continued to be in demand as an expert on mouse embryology. Over his career had also authored more than 250 papers and at least a dozen books.

Earlier in his professional life he had been president of Edinburgh’s Royal Medical Society and latterly he produced numerous papers and six books on various aspects of medical history.

Topics included surgeons at war, musket ball and sabre injuries, the history of the Edinburgh Phrenological Society, and more recently a biography of Dr John Barclay, extra-mural teacher of Human and Comparative Anatomy in Edinburgh during the late 18th and early 19th century, and the story of pioneering Scots surgeon Robert Liston.

Away from public life, he had been married to Claire since 1973 and continued to indulge his love of vintage cars, including Armstrong Siddeleys and Lagondas. After buying a 1934 Lagonda Rapier – and becoming the father of two sons – he decided to convert the two-seat sports car into a four-seat family tourer.

This enterprise took several years to complete as he used his woodworking skills to steam, bend and shape solid ash into the sweeping lines of an Abbott Tourer body.

Though he habitually wore a black beret, he could regularly be seen in his flying helmet, putting the glorious car through its paces on the Edinburgh bypass. He is survived by Claire, his sons Simon and David and grandchildren Angus and Georgia.