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Mitchell, Joseph Stanley, 1909-1987 (radiotherapist and academic)



  • Existence: 1909-1987

Joseph Stanley Mitchell (1909-1987), radiotherapist and physicist. Joseph Stanley Mitchell was born in Birmingham on 22 July 1909. He was educated at local schools until the age of 12 when he won a scholarship to the King Edward VI High School. In 1926 Mitchell won a State Scholarship to Birmingham University and in 1928 an Entrance Scholarship to St John's College Cambridge. He took a First Class in each part of the Natural Sciences Tripos, specialising in physics in Part II. He had decided on a career in medicine at an early age and therefore also took the examinations in pre-clinical subjects which would allow him to take the Cambridge MB and BChir after completing his postgraduate clinical training. Mitchell returned to Birmingham in 1931 for this training. He was awarded the Cambridge MB and BChir in 1934 and after a period as house physician at the General Hospital, Birmingham, began research for his PhD on the irradiation of thin protein films under E.K. Rideal at the Colloid Science Laboratory at Cambridge. Mitchell was awarded his PhD in 1937. He was then elected to a Research Fellowship at St John's College. In 1938 Mitchell began his first clinical work in radiotherapy, initially as Resident Radiological Officer at the Christie Hospital and Holt Radium Institute, Manchester, then as Assistant in Research in Radiotherapy in the Cambridge University Department of Medicine. This post was made permanent in 1943 with the opening of a Radiotherapeutic Centre at Addenbrooke's Hospital. In 1944, at the request of J.D. Cockcroft, Mitchell joined the British and Canadian Atomic Energy Project at Chalk River, Canada. He was asked to investigate radiobiological hazards to those working with radiations and to direct the Project's medical programme. At the end of 1945 Mitchell returned to Cambridge to take up the Chair in Radiotherapeutics within the newly established School of Clinical Research and Postgraduate Teaching, and the Directorship of the Radiotherapeutic Centre at Addenbrooke's Hospital which had been set up in 1943. In 1957 Mitchell succeeded Sir Lionel Whitby as Regius Professor of Physic. Despite the onerous administrative duties this imposed he remained active as Director of the Radiotherapeutic Centre and continued his full-time research in the Department of Radiotherapeutics, of which he also remained head. As Regius Professor Mitchell was instrumental in building up the School of Clinical Research and Postgraduate Teaching. He also argued for the establishment in Cambridge of a complementary pre-graduate clinical school in order that Cambridge medical students should not have to go to London teaching hospitals to receive their clinical training. His efforts were rewarded when in 1968 the Royal Commission on Medical Education recommended that a clinical school be established at Cambridge, largely on the basis of the strength of the existing Medical School. The School of Clinical Medicine opened its doors to students in 1976. Mitchell resigned from the Regius Chair a year early in 1975 to allow his successor W.J.H. (later Sir John) Butterfield to preside over the new School from the start and resumed his Professorship of Radiotherapeutics for a year. After retirement from the Chair Mitchell continued work, supported by funds from the Professor J.S. Mitchell Cancer Research Fund, and was an active researcher until his death in 1987. Among the honours accorded to Mitchell were the CBE in 1951, election to the Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1952 (serving on Council 1955-57) and an Honorary D.Sc. from Birmingham University in 1958. He delivered the Dunham Lectures at Harvard University and the Withering Lectures at Birmingham University in 1958, the Silvanus Thompson Lecture at the Royal Institute of Radiology in 1968 and the Linacre Lecture at St John's College Cambridge in 1970. In 1967 Mitchell received the Pirogoff Medal of the USSR Academy of Medical Sciences. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Colleges of Physicians. Radiology and Surgery and a Foreign Fellow of the Indian National Science Academy in 1974. Mitchell's early research was carried out at the Colloid Science Laboratory under Rideal on the biophysics of protein monolayers. From the late 1930s he began to investigate ionising radiations, his first paper on this subject being published in 1940 ('Wave length effect in the reaction of human skin to x- and gamma-radiation', Nature, Lond. 145, 105-107). On his move to Chalk River in 1944 to assist the British and Canadian Atomic Energy Project Mitchell began to study the biological effects of fast and thermal neutrons. His interest in this area led to his service on a number of Medical Research Council, Ministry of Supply and Ministry of Health committees which continued after his active research into biological effects of fast and thermal neutrons had ceased. While in Canada Mitchell also made one of his most significant contributions to cancer research - the recommendation (with J.V. Dunworth) that the radioisotope cobalt-60 was suitable for use in radiotherapy. On his return to Cambridge and his appointment to the Chair of Radiotherapeutics Mitchell's research concentrated on attempts to develop radiotherapeutic techniques to cure cancer. In 1946 he began to investigate the use of radiosensitising drugs as anti-cancer agents. It appeared that certain drugs concentrated in malignant cells and rendered them more sensitive to ionising radiations. Mitchell's team found that synkavit, menadiol sodium diphosphate, seemed effective against certain tumours and clinical trials began in 1952. Mitchell then began work on the development of a radioactive drug by modifying the radiosensitising drug to enable it to carry its own source of radiation to the malignant tissue. The radiation source selected was tritium and trials with tritiated synkavit were started in 1959 and continued into the 1970s. The next step was to investigate whether an isotope more effective than tritium could be found and Mitchell was studying this at his death. In 1946 Mitchell and his colleague L.H. Gray had prepared a paper for the Medical Research Council on the radiotherapeutic use of high energy beta and gamma radiations. In 1949 Mitchell's Department of Radiotherapeutics received one of the two 30 Mev synchrotrons funded by the Medical Research Council. Although the machine was not used to treat as many patients as was hoped, the synchrotron gave Mitchell and his team valuable experience of the effectiveness of high energy radiations. Later Mitchell pioneered the use of randomised trials to assess the efficacy of different kinds of treatment. The King's College Hospital London - Addenbrooke's Hospital Cambridge Breast Trial of therapy for 'early' breast cancer, which Mitchell helped organise, was one of the first of its kind and led the way to larger scale trials which have significantly improved the treatment of this form of cancer. Mitchell was also among the first to consider the part that psychological factors might play in the treatment of cancer.

Found in 1 Collection or Record:


Joseph Mitchell papers

Reference Code: GBR/0012/MS Mitchell (Joseph)
Scope and Contents The collection includes biographical material, material relating to Mitchell's work in Cambridge, notebooks and research notes, lists of publications, lectures and broadcasts, information on societies and organisations, visits and conferences and correspondence.
Dates: 1924-1988
Conditions Governing Access: Some items are restricted at the discretion of the Keeper of Manuscripts.

The UK Archival Thesaurus has been integrated with our catalogue, thanks to Kings College London and the AIM25 project for their support with this.