Michael Parkhouse, a life dedicated to science

Welshman, musician, actor, joker, scientist: Mike Parkhouse, died on October 1st aged 87
30 oct 2023

Born in London to schoolteacher parents of Welsh stock just in time for the Second World War, like thousands of other London children in those dark days, Mike was evacuated from the city, in his case to a Welsh coal-mining valley where his Welsh grandparents still lived.  

Michael Parhouse at IGC, 2017

From then on, until his death, Mike has been a Welshman. He took advantage of the first-class education available at no charge in the national grammar school system and went on to University at King’s College London. There he graduated in Biochemistry and went for a PhD at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School in Hammersmith Hospital, London. There followed 5 years in Southern California, first at the Scripps Clinic (now Institute) with Dick Dutton, whom he had met at RPMS,  then close by at the Salk Institute with Ed Lennox. All this time, he was transferring his biochemical skills to the challenging field of immunology. Now with a research background in a series of exciting laboratories, he returned to the UK in 1967 to take up an independent staff position in the National Institute of Medical Research at Mill Hill (NIMR) in the Immunology Division with John Humphrey (and later Brigitta Askonas) as Head.  There, among much else, Mike did important work on the in vitro biosynthesis and assembly of IgM, the 900kDa large pentameric immunoglobulin that defines the first stages of the antibody response. In particular, he showed that the then recently discovered orphan J chain was responsible for the pentamerization of IgM and the dimerization of IgA (PMID: 4205353), a major discovery.

Again, in 1974, with Erika Abney, he was the first to show that the enigmatic immunoglobulin isoform, IgD, was present with IgM on the B cell surface (DOI: 10.1038/252600a0), another classical finding. Mike spent over 20 years at NIMR, collaborating widely and publishing in many areas of immunology, but focusing on the properties, structures, and functions of the different antibody classes.

In 1987, Mike was recruited as the first Director of a new planned research institute in Spain, the Centro Nacional de Biotechnologia. He took the first year as a sabbatical from NIMR and a second year with leave of absence, but returned to NIMR shortly after, disappointed by lack of vision and failure to deliver on promised work. Shortly after returning from Madrid, Mike was appointed Head of the Immunology Department in the Animal Virus Research Institute at Pirbright (later the Institute of Animal Health), directly funded by the Agricultural and Food Research Council.  From here onward, Mike directed his research towards the relationship between immunity and disease. The AVRI was dedicated to studying agriculturally significant animal viruses, and above all the economically devastating Foot and Mouth Disease Virus, FMDV. Mike applied his deep knowledge and understanding of immunology to the characterisation of the immune systems of cattle and pigs, surprisingly different from the mouse and human. He argued that understanding the complex biochemistry of virus-host interactions with the economically important Blue Tongue and African Swine Fever viruses of pigs would facilitate the design of effective vaccines.

In 2000 Antonio Coutinho invited Mike to join the IGC, which at that time was beginning to mature from being “only” the home of the world’s most innovative PhD programme to becoming a free-standing research institute in its own right. Building on his experience at Pirbright and on increasing contacts and collaborations with the Spanish-speaking world, Mike continued his work on the pig viruses, both abundant in Spain and Spanish South America, making several significant discoveries. But perhaps the most important work that he did while at IGC, in collaboration with colleagues in Mexico, was the development of a clinical lateral flow test to detect neurocysticercosis, a terribly debilitating disease common in impoverished environments in the tropical Americas, when the infective tapeworm larva develops in the nervous system. This cheap and non-invasive test (PMID: 23505587) beats MRI in diagnosing the most dangerous form of the disease, when the parasite develops in the sub-arachnoid space. Another paper on a novel viral inhibitor of Toll-like receptors was published earlier this year (https://doi.org/10.3390/v15020445).

Michael Parkhouse with his group members at IGC

So much for the science. But Mike was much more than that. Early in his UK phase, he was an accomplished jazz trumpeter in a near-professional group with an enviable natural musical aptitude that led him to composition as well as performance. He was also an accomplished near-professional actor with an effortless stage presence, whether it was Shakespeare or music hall. He was a fount of splendid idiotic jokes that flowed effortlessly  whenever the context needed one, and in whatever wild regional accent he felt the joke needed (his favourite was Irish). I asked him once how on earth he remembered them all, to which he replied, “I only remember the punch lines, the rest I just make up as I go along”. I never asked him how he remembered all the punch lines. Sociable and an enthusiast for talk, he created an informal dining club at the Pombalino restaurant in Oeiras, and dinner often included the current IGC visitors and others who happened to be around. Politically, and true to his South Wales origins, Mike was an ardent activist on behalf of the Labour Party, a committed reader of the Guardian and Private Eye, from which, during his recent medical absences, he would send the choicest diatribes and political jokes for his friends to enjoy too.

Over the last years, we at the IGC have had to recognize that Mike was becoming ill with cancer. He would leave us for longer or shorter periods for the usual brutal therapeutic interventions. Each time he came back, perhaps a little thinner, but always the same Mike and with another manuscript in press. As he approached the end of his career, and as we now know, the end of his life, his scientific creativity was unchanged; his latest publication was published this year. His jaw-jutting determination and bravery were extraordinary. Nobody who was there will forget his last research talk in the Ionians, when his anger at the inevitable finally boiled over. He movingly recited a tragic poem from another great Welshman, Dylan Thomas, with the words “rage, rage against the dying of the light”. In the last couple of years, Mike’s absences from IGC became longer and his presence shorter. The last half year was his last, and he died peacefully at home in London with his wife of 47 years, Erika Abney, on Saturday, October 1, 87 years old.

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