Obituary: Professor Ainsley Iggo; pioneering physiologist became world’s leading authority on sensation and pain

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Born: 2 August, 1924, in Napier, New Zealand.Died: 25 March, 2012, in Edinburgh, aged 87.

PROFESSOR Ainsley Iggo rose from a humble rural background in New Zealand to become an outstanding Edinburgh-based physiologist and leading world expert on the mechanisms of sensation, notably how touch and pain are recognised and transmitted to the brain.

Having settled in Scotland more than 60 years ago, he played a key role in building the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies at the University of Edinburgh into an internationally recognised centre of research excellence.

A former Dean of what is popularly known as the Dick Vet (founded in 1823 by Sir William Dick), he remained professor emeritus of veterinary physiology there until his recent death. He was also a fellow of the Royal Society of London (FRS) and of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (FRSE), Scotland’s national academy of science and letters.

Although Prof Iggo became renowned nominally for his research in the field of veterinary physiology, his scientific discoveries at the Dick Vet were applicable to human medicine, to human sensations and especially pain. In other words, animals may not be as “intelligent” as humans but the action of sensation, and pain, to the brain is essentially the same.

Reflecting this, in 1973, he co-founded and later became president (1981-84) of the Seattle-based International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP), the world’s largest multidisciplinary organisation specialising in pain research, control and treatment – for animals and humans alike.

As IASP president, he organised the third World Congress on Pain, in Edinburgh, in 1981, and helped launch and run the IASP’s journal, PAIN.

He also created an internationally respected sensory physiology group in Edinburgh and nurtured, trained and mentored several of the world’s leading neurophysiologists.

It was in Scotland that he fulfilled his dream of recording signals from individual C nerve fibres, the smallest known nerve cells, a major breakthrough in physiology. To do so, he built his own equipment, helped by a Scot who made sonar equipment for trawlermen. “It was an era when a soldering iron was considered high tech,” he recalled. “I used miles of enamelled copper wire.”

Ainsley Iggo was born in Napier, on Hawke’s Bay, on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island in 1924, midway between the post-Great War economic collapse and the looming Great Depression, which made times hard for his parents.

His grandparents had come from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Scotland and Norway – among the first European settlers to land in the 19th century at the extreme southern town of Bluff, “one step from the South Pole”, as he later put it. One of Ainsley’s earliest memories as a child was of falling into the Grey River while fishing in a remote area on New Zealand’s west coast. He was being swept out to sea and what he expected to be “a watery grave” when a fisherman plucked him to safety with a whitebait net.

At Invercargill College near his home, he recalled being encouraged in his academic ambitions by a Scottish immigrant, Kenneth McKinnon. After he graduated with a master’s in agricultural sciences in 1948, agriculture looked to be his future but he added a further degree, a BSc from the University of Otago, in Dunedin, two years later.

It was in Dunedin that he met the two greatest influences on his life. The chair of physiology at the university was John Carew Eccles, who took young Ainsley under his wing and went on to win the 1963 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine.

It was also in Dunedin that Ainsley met fellow undergraduate Betty McCurdy, from Wellington, and, after both had moved separately to study in the UK they would marry in July 1952, in Oxford, where Betty was studying.

Ainsley had won a MacMillan Brown agricultural research scholarship to study food and nutrition at the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, later to merge with the University of Aberdeen and now known as the Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health. He worked as a steward on board the SS Mataroa to pay for his passage from New Zealand to the UK, never thinking it would turn out to be a one-way voyage.

His pioneering studies into the sensory innervation of the stomach led to him gaining a PhD from Aberdeen in 1954 before moving south to Edinburgh, where he would spend the rest of his life. He began as a lecturer in physiology at the Medical School of Edinburgh University before becoming, from 1962, chair and professor of veterinary physiology at the Dick Vet.

Still active and curious late in his career and into retirement, he made the extraordinary discovery that the Australian duck-billed platypus used receptors in its bill to catch food by detecting the minutest electric currents in the water generated by the muscles of its prey. His findings were published in the magazine Nature in 1987.

As well as holding the titles FRS and FRSE, he was an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (FRCPE) and was awarded several honorary degrees from universities around the world. These included one from the University of Edinburgh in 1993, believed to be the first awarded by the university to a former faculty member in recognition of his work there. Alongside him that day stood the Princess Royal to receive her honorary doctorate of veterinary medicine and surgery.

In his memoirs, he wrote of his later life: “Mozart, gardening and bee-keeping are now my chosen pursuits.”

Writing of Prof Iggo’s passing in the journal PAIN, Fernando Cervero, president-elect of IASP, commented: “Like a good single malt whisky, Ainsley was a bit of an acquired taste. He had a sharp wit and a very dry sense of humour. He did not suffer fools gladly. Actually he did not suffer fools at all – and did not take himself and, therefore, others very seriously …

“Those who knew him better did appreciate very much his direct style and enjoyed his sharp sense of humour. He had many close and dear friends among the pioneers of pain research … He created a school of pain researchers who continue his work to this day by upholding the high technical and scientific standards that were the hallmark of Ainsley Iggo’s work.”

Ainsley Iggo died peacefully at his Edinburgh home. He is survived by his wife Betty, sons Neil, Jonathan and Richard and grandchildren, Julia and Alex, to whom he was devoted.