John Henry was a dear friend of the Science Media Centre and, judging by the reactions I received by sending out news of his recent death, was also much loved by the many journalists he helped over the years. We met John soon after the Centre opened five years ago when he sat on our plush couches at the Royal Institution sipping wine and telling us that the way for scientists to improve the quality of science reporting is to get stuck into to helping journalists. From that day on, John Henry never failed to return our calls – no matter what time of the day or night and no matter how controversial the story.
When the tabloid press splashed the story about a planned ricin attack on the London Underground – Professor Henry was the expert who balanced the hysteria by pointing out that London commuters could in fact sleep in it or swim in it with no problem because ricin would be fatal only if it gets into the blood-stream. And that was one of many scare stories that he challenged. When campaigners fortougher controls on chemicals in the environment repeatedly grabbed news headlines and Daily Mail front pages for discovering a ‘cocktail of toxic chemicals’ in samples taken from breast feeding mothers and the cord blood of new-born babies – John spent hours telling journalists that this was unscientific scaremongering. He patiently explained that, for toxicologists, what mattered was ‘at what levels the chemicals were found’ and ‘whether there was evidence of harm’ – information that was not forthcoming from the campaign groups, despite him contacting them directly on many occasions. One of his many comments we issued on this story was typical of John, “I would have been surprised if they hadn’t found chemicals at that level. You find traces of flame retardant because we have them in our homes. That’s why fire deaths have plunged. These chemicals are monuments to mankind’s progress.”
However, while John was sanguine about scare-stories on chemicals in the bloodstream, he was anything but relaxed about the other dangerous toxins we put into our bodies. He was one of the world’s leading authorities on drugs and poisons and in earlier life helped set up the now famous Poisons Unit at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital. As Professor of Accident and Emergency at Imperial College London, he told us that he had pumped out the stomachs of one too many drug addicts and binge drinkers to be relaxed about the effects of illegal drugs. John was an expert witness at the inquest into the death of Leah Betts who died after taking an ecstasy tablet on her 18th birthday in 1995. Following this he became outspoken on the risks of the recreational drug, earning himself the nickname as ‘Mr E’ amongst his colleagues. In comments for the Science Media Cetre, Professor Henry often added that society should spend more time worrying about the harmful stuff we put in our bodies every Saturday night than scaring everyone to death about unproven risks.
Never normally one to shy away from controversy – the one time he apologetically backed off was when he gave his opinion that the Ukrainian political leader Viktor Yushchenko had been poisoned by dioxin. He and I both felt that the time when we received calls from Ukrainian ‘journalists’ asking where he lived, may be the time to draw a line. However, he didn’t steer clear of East European poisoning stories for long and the truth is that few in the UK media covering the Litvinenko story did so without help from Professor John Henry.
As with many scientists who choose to do high profile media work on controversial issues, John Henry wasn’t without his critics: with some government advisors suggesting that he spoke out before the full facts were known in the Litvineko case. It saddens me that the last time I met him before he died – just a few weeks ago – he was worried that he had been given some inaccurate information by the doctors treating Litvinenko that could have affected what he said to the media. However I would passionately defend John in this regard: everything he said was based on the most incredible expertise and knowledge built up over many years and while the Litvinenko story was changing by the hour, every fact professor Henry provided – about thallium, radioactive thallium and finallypolonium 210 – was accurate. As I have said previously, the demands of our current 24 hour media mean that if John Henry and others like him had not spoken to journalists until the full facts were known, the press would simply have had to use people with less knowledge and expertise.
As if John hadn’t done enough for the Centre by doing hundreds of media enquiries at anti-social hours, John also spoke to politicians, editors and scientists at our request. When we asked him to speak to 250 media shy academics as to why they too should enter the media fray, he amazed us all by revealing that he was an early victim of Ali G in an interview on drugs. But far from being humiliated or outraged by the experience, John took it with his usual humour and assured our audience that after that, John Humphries or Jeremy Paxman had been a doddle. His final message to the scientists in the room was “if you want the story about your science to be accurate, keep your mobile phone switched on.”
After hearing the news of John’s death I searched for some of his emails only to bring up hundreds from journalists thanking us for putting them in touch with him, all saying how friendly and useful he had been. My colleagues here, and at Imperial College press office, now dread the inevitable moment when a story breaks in his area and we cannot pick up the phone to him.
My final act for John Henry was to ensure that the media he served so well paid tribute to this amazing man and together with Imperial College press office we got his amazing obituary into the Times, Telegraph and BBC Radio 4’s Last Word. In doing so, we all learned that he had been an even more amazing character than we thought and were literally stunned by the news that he had become a celibate member of the devout Catholic group Opus Dei since the age of 20 and had been to mass every day ever since.
We also learned that John had given up medicine for several years in the 1970’s after his kidney failed. He received what must have been one of the earliest kidney transplants in 1976 and returned to a full and active life in medicine. In April this year that kidney failed him and he died from complications caused from removing it. Fittingly, on the day he died, he featured prominently in a BBC Horizon on poisons and drug use in ‘the perfect murder’.
Somewhere along the way, John Henry announced himself on the phone as Uncle John and allowed us to treat him as our friend as well as an expert from our database. We will miss him so much, and so will society. He was a rare example of a brilliant scientist who, in-between saving lives and pursuing amazing research, invested time and energy in ensuring that the British public got the best possible information from the media about his areas of expertise. We need more scientists like him.
This blog contains the thoughts of the author rather than representing the work or policy of the Science Media Centre.