Show/hide main menu


"Profoundly influential" clinical scientist dies

22 July 2009

Michael Antony Hamilton Russell, a psychiatrist and research scientist, was a pioneer in the study of tobacco dependence and the development of treatments to help smokers quit.  Professor Russell was born on March 9, 1932 and died on July 16 2009 aged 77.

Working in London at the Institute of Psychiatry and The Maudsley Hospital between 1969 and 1998 he conducted a number of highly original studies that revolutionized our understanding of both the pharmacological and psychological basis of tobacco smoking. For public health the interventions and treatments he developed have had an enormous impact throughout the world in reducing the morbidity and mortality caused by tobacco. At home, his work formed much of the evidence base that inspired the new UK NHS Stop Smoking services, launched in the year after his retirement.

Professor John Strang, Director of the National Addiction Centre, said 'Michael Russell was a profoundly influential clinical scientist and it is appropriate to recognize the enormous impact that he has had over the last 40 years on the scientific study of nicotine dependence, on the development of effective treatments to support smoking cessation, and on the introduction of more powerful public policy to reduce the extent of harm caused by tobacco smoking'.

Michael Russell was born in Cape Town, South Africa. After studying medicine at Oxford and Guys Hospital he returned to South Africa in 1959 where he developed a strong interest in psychiatry. Following brief spells at the Hammersmith, London and in Hong Kong he became a psychiatry registrar at the Maudsley in 1965. In 1969 he took a research post at the Addiction Research Unit of the Institute of Psychiatry at a time when the main focus was on opiates and alcohol. Although at this time the health effects of tobacco were being fully revealed in the work of others, the behaviour of smoking was still believed to be no more than a (habit). The insight Russell gained while trying to help smokers in the outpatient clinic he set up at the Maudsley quickly developed into a belief that rather than being defined by social and psychological factors and habituation, smoking was instead a form of drug addiction, maintained in most cases by the nicotine inhaled from cigarettes. Such an idea was first proposed in the early 1940's, but had then been quickly dismissed. It was again strongly resisted by the new generation of scientists and politicians and Russell began a protracted and frustrating battle for the acceptance of nicotine addiction as the underlying cause of more than 100,000 premature deaths in the UK and millions around the world.

Following a series of promising studies in the early 1970's the UK Medical Research Council took notice and offered long-term financial support to study the health effects of smoking. This inspired investment allowed him to gather together a strong team of psychologists, biochemists and statisticians to broaden and expedite his research. A major breakthrough came in the late 1970's when he helped develop a nicotine-containing chewing gum with the Swedish scientist, Dr Ove Ferno. In experimental studies at his now established Maudsley clinic the gum demonstrated that nicotine was indeed heavily implicated in tobacco dependence. Despite overwhelming evidence for the gum as an effective treatment, it was not until 2001 that it became available on NHS prescriptions. In the intervening years he helped develop other Nicotine Replacement preparations; these are now seen as common-place in pharmacies and supermarkets around the world.

This work was accompanied by numerous other research lines, the findings from which are now fully accepted. From nicotine pharmacokinetics to fear-arousing anti-smoking media campaigns, there were few areas of tobacco dependence that remained unexplored.

Professor Michael Russell was born on March 9, 1932 and died on July 16 2009, aged 77. He is survived by his wife, Audrey and two sons. An archive of his working papers is maintained by the library at Kings College, London.

Obituary by Mr John Stapleton, Senior Lecturer, Institute of Psychiatry .



Sitemap Site help Terms and conditions  Privacy policy  Accessibility  Modern slavery statement  Contact us

© 2024 King's College London | Strand | London WC2R 2LS | England | United Kingdom | Tel +44 (0)20 7836 5454