Joel Chair of Physics Applied to Medicine

The story goes back to 1745 when the Middlesex Infirmary was established in two houses in Windmill Street close to Tottenham Court Road. In 1792, Mr S Whitbread, the then current surgeon at the Middlesex Infirmary, decided to provide the first cancer wards for the reception of sufferers of the disease, where, in the founder’s happy phrase, they could remain until “relieved by art or released by death”. Approximately forty years later, six members of the medical staff of the Middlesex Hospital petitioned the Board of the Hospital to start a Medical school and in 1835 the first medical students were admitted. Appointments were made in surgery, medicine, midwifery, anatomy & physiology, therapeutics, chemistry, forensic medicine and botany.

In the years 1895 and 1896 two discoveries took place that had a major impact on medicine and the world at large. These were the discoveries of X-rays and of radioactivity respectively. These discoveries were quickly picked up by the medical community including those clinicians working at the Middlesex hospital. In fact the first X-ray source was purchased by the Hospital secretary in March 1896 (reputedly costing £12) and hence the ‘Electrical Department’ was established. The use of ionising radiation, particularly radioactive isotopes, for treatment of disease rapidly expanded and by 1913 a large stock of radium had been acquired. At a Hospital Board meeting the application and security of the radium stock was discussed and it was decided to create an appointment to the hospital of a physicist to look after the radium. This is believed to be the first UK hospital physicist and it was Sydney Russ who held this appointment.

Apart from the developments in the Middlesex hospital and in science in the latter half of the 19th century there were other developments taking place around the world. One of these rapidly evolving industries was to make a major impact on the Middlesex hospital and its research into cancer. In 1850 and 1851 two brothers were born in the East end of London. These two boys, Henry and Barney Barnato were born into a family that was working hard but with little prospect of improving its position in society. With this in mind the boys decided to try their fortunes in the rapidly expanding diamond fields of South Africa. Hence at the age of 21 they moved to South Africa and became diamond traders. Initially they would purchase small low value diamonds and sell them at a profit. Any money they made was used to purchase claims on discontinued workings. These were workings that had been abandoned after the ‘easy’ diamonds had been found. However, Harry and Barney thought they could still hold large deposits if only the harder rocks that caused them to be abandoned could be mined. This they did and made a fortune. During this period they brought over from London three of their uncles (Solly, Jack and Wolf Joel) to help with expanding their diamond mining company and just 17 years after Harry and Barney had arrived in South Africa, in 1888, they sold out to DeBeers for £5.3M! They continued to develop a gold mining business in South Africa but they made frequent visits back to England. All five of these family members led ‘interesting’ lives. Barney committed suicide in 1897 by jumping over the side of the ship. Solly, who was with him on the trip, was initially accused of murder but was eventually cleared. Jack, whilst in South Africa, was arrested for illegal dealings in diamonds, jumped bail and came back to England where he, and brother Solly became race horse owners. They won the Irish National, the Grand National and other races many times. Wolf successfully raced Bentley motor cars and was one of the ‘Bentley Boys’ but was eventually shot on his return to South Africa in 1898.


His death was not without incident. Some months before his death he was in London and he organised a dinner at the Savoy hotel for thirteen of his friends. On the day of the dinner one could not attend and so only 13 people sat down for dinner. The staff at the Savoy said this was unlucky but Solly took no notice. At the end of the dinner, he rose to leave and one of the guests told him he should stay because the first to leave would die early. Solly laughed this off, left the Savoy and the following day returned to South Africa. He was shot three days later. The Savoy hotel now has a tradition that if 13 sit down for dinner Kasper, a model cat, is brought in to join them to make up the number to 14!


Henry died in 1908 in London and left an estate worth in excess of £5M. In 1910 the trustees of the estate left £250,000 to the Middlesex Hospital and Medical School and with this money the Barnato-Joel Cancer research facilities were expanded with new laboratories. In 1920 part of the Barnato-Joel bequest was used to endow the Joel Chair in Physics Applied to Medicine. This was the first chair in Physics Applied to Medicine in the world and Sydney Russ was appointed to this newly established position in the Middlesex Hospital Medical School. Since then the appointees have been Eric Roberts, James Tait FRS, John Clifton, Roger Ordidge and the current holder is Robert Speller.

To celebrate the Chair a new lecture series, The Joel Lectures, was started in June 2012. The first Joel Lecture was delivered by Professor Steve Webb. This will be an annual event.