Just days after the passing of Robert Terry last month, the Alzheimer’s field lost another founding father. Sir Bernard Evans Tomlinson died suddenly at home in Gateshead, U.K., on May 26 at age 96. Tomlinson is sometimes called the "Father of AD Neuropathology” thanks to his seminal papers with Sir Martin Roth and Gary Blessed in the late 1960s demonstrating the prevalence of Alzheimer’s plaques and tangles in late-onset dementia (see Roth et al., 1967; Blessed et al., 1968). Until then, Alzheimer’s had been considered an early onset disease, distinct from age-related dementia, which was believed to be more vascular in nature. Tomlinson’s work demonstrated the presence of plaques and tangles in as many as two-thirds of late-onset cases (see Tomlinson et al., 1970). He was the first neuropathologist to count plaques and tangles and correlate their extent with the severity of dementia.
Elaine Perry worked with Tomlinson in the 1970s and ’80s as part of a large group of neuropathologists, psychiatrists, and neurochemists at the University of Newcastle. “None of us would be where we are today without Bernard’s work,” she told Alzforum. She recalled Tomlinson as meticulous, thoughtful, and open-minded. “It was a pleasure to work with him,” she said. Others agreed. “I always found Bernard to be charming and very helpful in discussions on dementia,” Roy Weller at the University of Southampton wrote to Alzforum (see full comment below).
Tomlinson was born July 13, 1920, and grew up in the village of Huthwaite, Nottinghamshire. He attended medical school during World War II at University College Hospital, London, and trained as a pathologist in the Emergency Medical Services Corps at Ashford General Hospital in Middlesex. He served in the Royal Army Medical Corps from 1947 to 1949, attaining the rank of major. He then joined Newcastle General Hospital, where he spent the rest of his career. There he supported Robert and Elaine Perry in their groundbreaking work on the role of the cholinergic system in Alzheimer’s disease, which led to the first approved drug treatments.
Tomlinson established a friendly, collegial atmosphere for the department, and his wife, Betty, would often host gatherings for the researchers, Perry said. Tomlinson had a passion for vintage cars, and sometimes drove his Bentley to work. Perry remembers him as dignified and old-school, but with a sense of fun. “We were all rather fond of malt whiskey, and he was not averse to having a little spot at the end of the day,” she said.
Tomlinson retired from Newcastle in 1985 and threw himself into public health administration. He had always been interested in public health and campaigned for the establishment of the National Health Service in 1945. From 1982–1990, he chaired the Northern Regional Health Authority, and in 1991 led an inquiry into London’s health services. Concerned about the waste of public funds, he was famously parsimonious, refusing to travel first-class or to have his offices carpeted. Tomlinson was named a Commander of the British Empire in 1982 and knighted in 1988.
Tomlinson is survived by his wife, two children, five grandchildren, and nine great-grandchildren.—Madolyn Bowman Rogers
- Roth M, Tomlinson BE, Blessed G. The relationship between quantitative measures of dementia and of degenerative changes in the cerebral grey matter of elderly subjects. Proc R Soc Med. 1967 Mar;60(3):254-60. PubMed.
- Blessed G, Tomlinson BE, Roth M. The association between quantitative measures of dementia and of senile change in the cerebral grey matter of elderly subjects. Br J Psychiatry. 1968 Jul;114(512):797-811. PubMed.
- Tomlinson BE, Blessed G, Roth M. Observations on the brains of demented old people. J Neurol Sci. 1970 Sep;11(3):205-42. PubMed.
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