Jack Simmons: A personal appreciation

7 April 2022

Jack Simmons

Many older members of the BIR will remember Jack Simmons with affection.  Professor Jack Simmons MInstP (1934–2021) performed ground-breaking research which resulted in the development of a new paradigm to quantify radiation effects. I met him on many occasions when he was working in the library at Portland Place, and also on the library committee. He always appeared relaxed and smiling, but could also be extraordinarily determined when necessary.

 Jack was born and lived most of his life in north London. He attended the local primary school, and at aged 11 took the “11-plus” examination which would determine the secondary school that he attended. Jack came in the top 10 for London, and as a result he was awarded a place at Bancroft’s School. Bancroft's School is now a co-educational independent day school located in Woodford Green, London Borough of Redbridge, and at that time was a boys-only direct grant grammar school.

His mother was Jewish and from Poland, coming to England to marry Jack’s father in 1931. In 1942 all of his mother’s Polish relations were murdered in the death camps, and his mother never recovered.

Unfortunately we cannot choose when to be ill, and Jack’s application to university coincided with him suffering from appendicitis which required a change in his plans for university entrance. Therefore at the age of 18, in 1952, he started working at the newly established Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell in Oxfordshire, as one of their youngest scientists. This was an exciting time, with rapid development in atomic physics as part of the “atoms for peace” movement  following the Second World War. While at Harwell, Jack studied part-time, moving to the Sir John Cass College to read physics. In 1970, the Sir John Cass College merged with the City of London College to form the City of London Polytechnic.

Jack then obtained his MSc and a PhD at St Bartholomew’s Hospital Medical College, developing an interest in medical physics, and becoming particularly interested in the use of ionising radiation. His doctoral findings were not in line with the contemporary accepted findings, and this resulted in tension at Bart’s between Jack and Joseph Rotblat. The Polish Sir Joseph Rotblat (1908–2005) had been appointed Professor of Physics at St Bartholomew's Hospital in 1949, and was BIR president 1971–1972. Jack then completed a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

On returning to England, he spent a period at the Medical Research Council’s Radiation Unit at Hammersmith Hospital in West London, and following this he held a research position in Munich before being asked to join the Polytechnic of Central London in 1970, where he was made a professor of radiation biophysics. He became the Radiation Protection Officer for the University of Westminster.

Jack remained at the Polytechnic of Central London for 30 years until he retired. It had been founded in 1838 as the Royal Polytechnic Institution, and was the first polytechnic to open in London. The Polytechnic had formally received a Royal Charter in August 1839, and in 1992 became the University of Westminster.

Jack took a sabbatical to work for the US Environmental Protection Agency in Washington and gave many keynote addresses at conferences, but he was happiest when at home. His wife Heather calls him a “home bird”!

Jack questioned both the International Commission on Radiation Units and Measurements (ICRU) and the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP), for basing their definition and measurement of radiation dose on physical principles. Jack thought they should be based on the biological effects of radiation at the DNA level, and that instruments to measure the biological effects should be developed.

His bookRadiation Protection Dosimetry: A Radical Reappraisal, was published by Medical Physics Pub Corp in 1999. Jack’s new bio-effectiveness model offered a fresh approach which questioned traditional thinking. He made a critique of the prevailing paradigm within an historical context, and went on to describe radiobiological models that could be used to determine the health effects of radiation.

The book caused quite a stir in radiation protection circles as at that time all radiation protection standards were based on epidemiological studies, mainly relying on data from the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bomb survivors. However, in 2020 the ICRU and the ICRP published an alternative approach to their definition of operational radiation protection quantities that went some of the way towards concurring with Jack’s original viewpoint.

His abiding interest was in science. He read widely in science, with a particular liking for biography. He was a member of Supporters of Nuclear Energy (SONE) https://sone.org.uk . SONE is an independent group of individuals of many different disciplines, interests, and backgrounds. The objectives of SONE are to promote informed debate about the  place of nuclear power in the global energy supply, to explain how it can help power the world’s economic development in a sustainable way, and to persuade UK politicians and others to support these aims.

Jack had a passion for music with a particular liking for opera and Mozart. He was a member of the Polytechnic Masonic Lodge and just prior to his death was arranging a meeting to raise money for the Williams Syndrome Foundation https://williams-syndrome.org.uk, which was a charity close to his heart. Williams Syndrome is a micro-deletion of genetic material from a specific region of chromosome 7.

Jack was Treasurer and served on the Board of Caxton House Community Centre for many years. Caxton House Community Centre is a vibrant community hub based near Archway in the London Borough of Islington.

Jack passed away on 27 September 2021. He leaves behind his wife Heather, his stepdaughter Rosanne and three grandsons. He had met his wife when they were both serving on the national committee of the Association of Polytechnic Teachers. 


By Adrian Thomas, Honorary Historian, BIR.

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