Dr Michael Espir
BORN LONDON, APRIL 1, 1926. DIED LONDON, JULY 1, 2015, AGED 89
THE NEUROLOGIST Michael Espir was an expert in the field of multiple sclerosis and epilepsy, and his name is linked with rehabilitation medicine. As principal medical officer with the Civil Service Medical Advisory Service, he was charged with developing neurological wards on a national scale. He was particularly active in Derby, Nottingham and Leicester University hospitals, as consultant neurologist.
Family members insist that this “brilliant, compassionate, true British gentleman” did not live by science alone. He believed in the concept of fate and implied that “there is always a reason for everything”. A devoted family man and a diligent and attentive clinician, he was also a gifted cellist.
Espir had wanted to be a doctor from the age of seven when he accidentally cut through his fingers with a penknife while trying to share a chocolate with his brother. The stitches on his fingers proved the catalyst that transformed the lives of millions of people worldwide, who benefited from his research into epilepsy and multiple sclerosis.
Evacuated during the Second World War to Canada with his mother and sister Anne, they crossed the Atlantic in the Duchess of Atholl, and despite his youth — he was only 14 — he was chosen to man one of the ship’s guns. Another ship on a similar journey the following week was sunk by a U-boat with many casualities. He won a more academic accolade by becoming allegedly the first person in the world to take the School Certificate, forerunner to the GCSE, outside the UK.
Dr Espir did his national service in the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) as Clinical Officer to the Army Neurological and Tuberculosis Meningitis Unit at Wheatley Military Hospital, and the Head Injuries Centre in Oxford. He also worked at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in the spinal injuries unit. Between 1952-54 he was a major in the Royal Army Medical Corps.
One of three children born into a secular Jewish family, Espir won a scholarship to Aldenham School and Trinity Hall Cambridge where he read medicine. The death in childhood of his younger brother of a mysterious illness further inspired him to become a doctor and study the neurological background to that condition.
But in 1947 at Cambridge, aged 22, he was diagnosed with polio, which
Dr Michael Espir: expert in the fields of multiple sclerosis and epilepsy caused muscle depletion in his legs and arms. By sheer strength of character he forced his muscles out of entropy and eventually returned to univer- sity to complete his exams. He went on to the Middlesex Hospital for his clinical studies, qualifying in 1950 with a first in biochemistry, and gained his MRCP in 1957. In 1958 he married Patricia Smouha, granddaughter of Joseph Smouha, the noted Iraqi-Jewish cotton manufacturering mogul.
The post-war boost to neurological clinical training led to his developing units in Leicester, Nottingham and Derby. He returned to the Middlesex as house physician and registrar and practised occupational health in his role as principal medical officer with the CSMAS between 1979-1985. From 1986-1988 he was president of the British branch of the International League Against Epilepsy, a keen interest of his. His influential paper Epilepsy and Driving, published in The Lancet, led to sufferers avoiding having to face a blanket ban on driving, provided their condition was controlled.
In 1983 Espir joined a DHSS working group on Services for People with Epilepsy, whose 1986 report led to improved care in this condition. He published papers relating to epilepsy and participated in a study of the seizures suffered by multiple sclerosis patients. His wife, Patricia, died in 1999, and in 2003 he married Valerie Van Straten, who survives him, with the two sons and two daughters from his first marriage, James, Timothy, Rosalind and Marion, and 12 grandchildren.