Gifted physician who studied immune-mediated kidney disease and human persistent virus infections
Patrick Sissons, who died on 25 September, will be remembered as much for his groundbreaking research in nephrology and infectious disease as for his leadership of the University of Cambridge’s Clinical School, where he was Regius Professor of Physic.
He had an intuitive mastery of detail, and a deep understanding of the ever-changing landscape of university research and education. Calm and unshowy, he brought a strong dose of realism to the management of the often-contradictory demands that emerge in settings combining health care and medical research.
(John Gerald) Patrick Sissons was born in Hestle, East Yorkshire, in 1945, to Gerald, owner of a family timber mill, and to Georgina, who came from a shipping family based in Gainsborough.
Educated first in Ilkley, followed by Felsted School, Sissons trained with distinction in Medicine at St Mary’s Hospital Medical School. After junior posts in clinical pathology and nephrology, his perspectives changed when he undertook clinical research at Hammersmith under the charismatic influence of Keith Peters and Peter Lachmann.
He studied patients with immune mediated kidney diseases, identifying anti-complement autoantibodies associated with glomerulonephritis. He understood the potential for specific treatment that would come from a better knowledge of the disease and its underlying causes. In one notable case, he encountered a nurse who had developed immune-mediated kidney disease through repeated self-immunization with tetanus, diphtheria and polio vaccines.
After further clinical training at the University of the West Indies, a prestigious NIH Fogarty Fellowship enabled Sissons to join Mike Oldstone at the Scripps Research Institute, San Diego, for three years. There, in highly cited research conducted during a local measles outbreak, he demonstrated the critical role played by protein molecules in the blood, known as complement, in the destruction of cells infected by the measles virus.
A Senior Lectureship awarded by The Wellcome Trust allowed him to return to Hammersmith in 1980, ultimately transferring to the department of Virology. He shared a major MRC grant award with Keith Peters, and with Jonathan Cohen established the academic infectious diseases service, combining clinical interests in infectious disease with the scientific pursuit of human persistent viral infection.
He focused on cytomegalovirus, a virus that is latent in the majority of humans but which can easily kill patients with suppressed immunity. His pioneering work in this field coincided with the emergence of the AIDS epidemic, caused by human immunodeficiency virus.
At a time when cytomegalovirus infection was studied mostly in animal models, Sissons and his colleagues – including John Sinclair and Leszek Borysiewicz (then a PhD student, now Vice-Chancellor at the University of Cambridge) – developed innovative methods to examine the virus in its natural host.
This work expanded after Sissons’ move to Cambridge in 1987. Research by the Sissons-Sinclair laboratory, funded continuously for 25 years by the Medical Research Council, has since been at the forefront of research into virus latency and reactivation. Cambridge is now a designated centre of excellence for research into critical pathogen-host interactions.
At Cambridge, Sissons teamed up with his former mentor, Keith Peters, then Regius Professor of Physic – Peters’ acceptance of the position had been contingent on the appointment of Sissons as a Professor of Medicine. He revealed his deep understanding of large and complex institutions, as well as his understated, but highly effective, style of academic leadership.
Trusted by members of other faculties, and able delicately to accommodate and improve local practices, he was crucial to the development of the Faculty of Clinical Medicine, delivering a living academic organism that finally met the expectations of a world-class university. Today’s expanding biomedical campus – incorporating diverse research buildings as well as the nationally unequalled MRC laboratory of Molecular Biology alongside the large regional Addenbrooke’s hospital – embodies the vision shared by those who first welcomed Sissons to Cambridge.
Sissons succeeded Peters to the Regius Professorship and despite many demands at home and abroad, did not abandon clinical undergraduate teaching; as honorary Consultant Physician, he maintained more than symbolic clinical responsibilities. He served with great distinction for seven years until retirement in 2012. Earlier that year Sissons was knighted for services to Research and Education in Clinical Medicine.
A Founding Fellow (1998) of the Academy of Medical Sciences, he served as Clinical Vice-President from 2010. Among other duties overseas, he chaired the 2014 Research Assessment Panel for the Universities Grant Council in Hong Kong, served on the Medical Advisory Board of the Gairdner Foundation in Canada, and was Distinguished Visitor of Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research. He was elected a Fellow of Darwin College, Cambridge in 1988.
A brilliant clinical scientist, academic strategist and administrator, Patrick Sissons was wise, scrupulously fair and unstinting in support of others – especially younger academics and trainees. He is remembered for his patience and ability to clarify complex matters by adroit and penetrating questioning.
Modest and private, he bore a rapidly progressive and cruel illness stoically but his dry wit, interest in others and refined intelligence were undimmed. He had two daughters from his marriage, in 1971, to Jennifer Anne Scovell (d. 1991): Sarah (b. 1973) lives in Levisham, North Yorkshire; Rebecca (b. 1974) lives in Derbyshire with her husband and three children. Their loss, and that of his partner, Jean Thomas, will be felt by a vast community of clinicians, researchers and friends.
This obituary was written by Professor Tim Cox with contributions from Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, Professor Patrick Maxwell and Professor Dame Jean Thomas.