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John Cummings is Professor of Experimental Gastroenterology at the Department of Molecular and Cellular Pathology, University of Dundee, Scotland, and an Honorary Consultant Physician at Ninewells Hospital.
After boarding school in Yorkshire, England, he graduated in medicine in Leeds, in 1964, and undertook specialist training in gastroenterology, before joining the staff of the Medical Research Council, Gastrointestinal Unit in London in 1970. These were exciting times in gastroenterology, and, under the guidance of Avery Jones, E N Rollands, and George Misiewicz, he learnt something of the rudiments of physiological experimentation and the art of writing coherently. He also joined a world-wide fellowship of gastroenterologists who passed through the unit.
When the London unit closed, he moved to the Dunn Nutrition Unit in Cambridge. For 20 years here he headed a team of scientists working on digestive physiology and diseases, and, in particular, the relationship between diet and the intestinal flora and large gut function. These were creative years when much was learnt about large bowel function. In addition, being in a nutrition unit, much was also learnt about the problems of bringing science to the bedside and into public health policy for the prevention of diseases.
When the Dunn Unit was broken up in 1998, he moved to Ninewells Hospital, Dundee, with the nucleus of the GI team from Cambridge, including George Macfarlane, a gut microbiologist. Their work is now continuing, after the usual interruptions of moving, with focus especially on the interface between microbial metabolism and epithelial cell function in the large intestine, which, they believe, has important implications for ulcerative colitis. The University of Dundee was very helpful in creating an environment for the move when catastrophe struck Cambridge. The already established, very active team of gastroenterologists with strong research interests, included Chris Pennington, John Dillon, and David Johnston.
Nationally and internationally, John Cummings has been a member of a number of Department of Health committees, as well as many European and international bodies concerned with diet and health. He was awarded the Caroline Walker Science Prize in 1992, and the Cleave Trophy in the same year, in recognition of his work on public health aspects of diet. He was the Danone Visiting Professor in the Department of Biochemistry at the Catholic University of Louvain in Brussels in 1996.
Professor Cummings has published around 250 papers, principally in the area of the large bowel and its diseases.
- What made you decide to become a gastroenterologist?
- My first house job was with Professor John Golligher in Leeds. He had such an enthusiasm for the large bowel, an almost bloodless operating technique, and an inquiring mind that I was hooked straight away. My next house job on the Professorial Medical Unit brought me into contact with Monty Losowsky who was a lecturer at the time, and thereafter I was passed to Geoffrey Watkinson in York, and then on to Michael Atkinson in Worcester. I finally went to Avery Jones in London to complete my training. In the late 1960's and early 1970's, gastroenterology was a really hot specialty, with all the exciting work going on in intestinal absorption. Unfortunately, endoscopy spoiled all that!
- Who was the teacher you admired the most?
- There were a number, as indicated above, but I guess the accolade has to go to Avery Jones, who had a great knack for getting the best out of people, and an extraordinary perceptive brain which got to the heart of a problem immediately.
- Which research paper influenced you the most?
- That is difficult. It is usually something I have read in the past week, only to be displaced by the next round of journal reading. John Fordtran's papers on intestinal water and electrolyte transport influenced me to a great extent in my early years.
- What is the most important fact that you have discovered?
- That people matter - everything else gets in the way
- What is the biggest mistake that you have made?
- In 1982, shortly after we had published a paper on the intestinal flora, a Japanese professor, I think probably Tomotari Mitsuoka, sent me the first issue of a journal called 'Bifidobacteria and Microflora'. I paid scant regard to it, as one is inclined to do with things that arrive unsolicited in the post, but this journal contained a paper on 'Search for sugar sources for selective increase in bifidobacteria'. It took us 14 years to catch up with these ideas and repeat these experiments. If I had taken the paper seriously, we would have been enormously further down the line of selective control of individual bacterial genera in the hind gut. This is now all the rage, with the use of prebiotics and probiotics.
- What is your unfulfilled ambition?
- To play a musical instrument well.
- What is your greatest regret?
- I try not to regret and look backwards. The future is always full of promise.
- How do you relax?
- I am just learning how.
- What is your favorite sport?
- Horse racing. Twenty-five years living near Newmarket produced some memorable and exciting times. It is totally away from medicine. I always turn to the racing page in a newspaper first.
- What is your best place in the world?
- Oliphants camp in the Kruger Park, overlooking the river and out across Africa as it has been for tens of thousands of years.
- What is your favorite film?
- I never watch a film twice if I can help it, but I am looking out for "The L-shaped Room" if it ever comes on the television.
- What car do you drive?
- A diesel Mercedes these days. I gave my sports coupe to my son five years ago when I reckoned my reaction times were no longer up to it.
- What is your best electronic 'toy'?
- My mobile phone, if that counts. They are a miracle of modern technology and you can really keep in touch from anywhere in the world.
- What book are you reading at the moment?
- Magnus Magnusson's "History of Scotland"
- Why did you get in involved in GastroHep.com?
- Roy Pounder of course. If it is as successful as "Alimentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics", then I shall be glad to be part of it.