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James Gowans: immunologist whose research revealed the crucial role of lymphocytes in the immune response

BMJ 2020; 369 doi: (Published 03 June 2020) Cite this as: BMJ 2020;369:m2190
  1. Rebecca Wallersteiner
  1. London
  1. wallersteiner{at}


Photo credit: Lucy Neal

James Learmonth Gowans (“Jim”) was born in Sheffield to parents John, a technician in a hospital pathology laboratory, and Selma (née Ljung). He attended the Whitgift Middle School in Croydon, where he shone academically.

While at medical school he assisted in the newly liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp as a voluntary medical student. In 1948 he obtained a first class honours degree in physiology at Lincoln College, Oxford, and then remained at Oxford to take a DPhil on lymphocytes with Howard (later Lord) Florey at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology.

In the summer of 1949, he was admitted to hospital with tuberculosis and spent nearly four months as an inpatient. Interviewed nearly 50 years later, Gowans recalled, “A friend brought me a brass telescope and a birdwatching book, and as my bed was wheeled outside for fresh air every day I could sit there all day long, watching the birds, and that interest has stayed with me. I also read a lot.” After his discharge, Gowans travelled to Cornwall and spent the winter convalescing at the St Christopher’s Hotel in Penzance. There he befriended the wife of the artist Terry Frost, who worked in the kitchen, and found himself in the middle of a thriving artists’ colony. He remembered sitting in the kitchen as Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson and other artists dropped by for tea. Thankfully he never had a recurrence of the tuberculosis.

Lymphocyte research

Gowans then spent a year as a Medical Research Council (MRC) exchange scholar at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, where he forged friendships and developed his interest in infection and immunity, before returning to Oxford. …

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