Obituary: Professor David Marsden

John Rothwell
Sunday 23 October 2011 05:42

APOCRYPHAL STORIES abound about the life of David Marsden. Whether or not he really danced the samba with Dolly Parton in Rio only four hours before his keynote morning lecture on basal ganglia disease is unimportant. The fact is that David Marsden's colleagues believed that it was well within the limits of possibility. He had the physical stamina and the intellectual prowess to do both brilliantly.

His early career was an astonishingly fast rise up the usually staid ladder of clinical neurology. After training at St Thomas' Hospital and at the then National Hsopital for Nervous Diseases in Queen Square (now the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery), he was only 34 when he was appointed to the first chair of neurology at King's College and the Bethlem Royal Hospitals in Denmark Hill. Thirteen years later, in 1987, he was elected to the premier post of clinical neurology as Professor at the Institute of Neurology in Queen Square.

Establishment connections were never courted by David Marsden. He achieved his rise by the sheer quality of his research. He was one of the principal contemporary neurologists to reappraise the then poorly understood field of movement disorders. He recognised that writer's cramp and torticollis (abnormal posture of the neck), previously considered to be psychological conditions, were organic diseases of the central nervous system, and saw them as part of a much larger group of disorders that became known as the dystonias. Looking back now it is remarkable how often his classifications were correct, and have set the standard for the past 25 years.

Not satisfied with his clinical triumphs, he wanted to understand where and how the disorders originated in the brain. His scientific mentor was Professor P.A. Merton, whom he first met in the mid-1960s whilst experimenting the effect of adrenaline on arm tremor. Guided by Merton, and the technical wizardry of Bert Morton, Marden set up a physiology laboratory to identify the neural circuits which functioned abnormally in different movement disorders. This was paralleled by a pharmacology group which he established with Dr (later Professor) Peter Jenner to describe the associated chemical changes in the brain.

All of this was finally complemented by the establishment of a centre to store the brains of patients who had died with movement disorders. Out of this idea, hatched over an aeroplane lunch with Dr Andrew Lees, has grown the Parkinson's Disease Society Brain Bank which now has 800 brains available for researchers to study in any part of the world.

It was Marsden's unique clarity of vision and his ability to combine clinical and scientific skills that lifted the study of movement disorders to the forefront of clinical neurology. For years, he attracted some of the best young neurologists from around the world, and if they ever remembered anything after late-night drinks in the Phoenix & Firkin at Denmark Hill, it was his constant advice to enjoy what they did. Eventually, in 1986, when his students were spread over the globe, Marsden founded, with Dr Stanley Fahn of Columbia University, New York, the extraordinarily successful Movement Disorders Society. It met 10 days ago with 3-5,000 international delegates.

His driving ambition in science did not prevent him from being an excellent clinician. He had the knack of being able to recognise, often in difficult circumstances, the real needs of the patient, and to appreciate that these might change over time. He was held in the highest esteem by his own patients, and received referrals from around the globe.

When he moved to Queen Square, his administrative responsibilities soared, and his direct involvement in science grew smaller. He hated this. Despite the honours that were heaped upon him, he was never at ease with his establishment position. Although he was blessed with a voice and demeanour that gave him instant advantage in committee work, he would never rate his organisational success before scientific achievement. He established a new research unit into movement and balance funded directly by the Medical Research Council and was instrumental in helping to establish the Functional Imaging Laboratory in Queen Square. Both of these enriched clinical neuroscience immeasurably, but to Marsden, they were both second to the full-time experimental work he loved.

At heart, he was a shy man who could only open himself fully to a small number of very close friends. He was shattered by the sudden death from cancer of one of his closest colleagues, Professor Anita Harding, in 1995, and, perhaps because of associated ill-health, never seemed able to recover his old self. He went to the United States for his first ever sabbatical on 1 September this year; tragically he died of a heart condition less than one month later.

Charles David Marsden, clinical neurologist: born 15 April 1938; Senior House Physician, National Hospital for Nervous Diseases 1968-70; Senior Lecturer in Neurology, Institute of Psychiatry and King's College Hospital 1970-72, Professor of Neurology 1972-87; FRS 1983; Professor of Clinical Neurology, Institute of Neurology and National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery 1987-98, Director, Medical Research Council Human Movement and Balance Unit 1988-98, Dean 1995-98; married 1961 Jill Bullock (one son, three daughters, and one son deceased; marriage dissolved), 1979 Jenny Sandom (three daughters; marriage dissolved); died Washington DC 29 September 1998.

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