Remembering Jeffrey Pollard

Jeff Pollard and Rod Flower met while studying at Sheffield. They quickly became good friends, and no matter where life took them, their bond remained unbreakable.

Jeffrey smiling at the camera
Jeff Pollard (right), Ooi-Thye Chong (centre) and the author’s wife, Lindsay (left). The photograph was taken in 2021 by the author whilst the Pollards were visiting with us in our house in Wiltshire.

My first impression of undergraduate life was that it consisted mainly of queueing. It was Fresher’s week 1968, and there were queues everywhere; queues to obtain Union cards, library passes and course information; queues to register with the Student Health Service or to be allocated your personal tutor. Then there were also the queues that had formed around the stalls set out by undergraduate societies in the Union in the hope of recruiting new members. For budding thespians there was Drama Soc. while Music Soc. obviously catered for those who played instruments, sang or just enjoyed listening to music; there was also a clutch of undergraduate societies (Phys. Soc., Biochem. Soc. etc) whilst those who held left wing views (and were confident that they weren't suffering from double vision) gravitated to the Soc. Soc. Stall.

In some cases, people seemed to join queues without actually knowing why. On my first day, and because it was rumoured that it had something important to do with my course, I expectantly joined just such a queue outside Western Bank. We were
still standing there in the late afternoon as dusk fell and Sheffield sank into its characteristic Autumnal gloom. The person ahead of me in the line was chatting to some postgraduate students who had evidently been charged with maintaining some sort of order. After a while he turned to me and, smiling, included me in the conversation. As we talked, the queue grew shorter and we arranged to go to the West End afterwards for a beer together with the postgraduates with whom, by now, we were on terms of easy familiarity. My new acquaintance introduced himself and I learned that his name was Jeff Pollard. In that moment, a friendship was born which lasted until his untimely death in May 2023.

I was in Sheffield to read Physiology and I learned that Jeff was studying Zoology. In those days all the life scientists, whatever their chosen discipline, had a common first year syllabus (‘Integrated Biology’). Teaching took place in a brand-new purpose-built laboratory which had just been constructed to accommodate us all. Anxious to forge ahead with our own ‘subjects’ we didn't much like this idea at the time but, in subsequent years, we both agreed that this was one of the outstanding features of the Sheffield Course. Not only therefore did Jeff and I meet practically every day in the lab, but since he was living in Crewe Hall of Residence (as was), and I was in Stephenson Hall just up the road, we often met socially at the weekends too. Together with our circle of friends we enjoyed the many benefits of being a student, which included cheap tickets to the theatres, art galleries and (especially) the concerts at the City Hall where Sir John Barbirolli’s wonderful Hallé Orchestra often played.

Maybe like most close friends, Jeff and I were, in truth, very different people. However, we were drawn together by a deep passion for science as well as our interests in literature and the arts. I was especially attracted by music while Jeff had already developed a lively interest in the visual arts. We also enjoyed the same pastimes; cooking for our friends, organising parties and, when we could afford it, enjoying what has become known as ‘fine dining’. During the vacations we often used to take advantage of the free courses offered at that time: I recall us both doing a basic Fortran programming course as well as an ‘advanced’ mathematics course for biologists, both of which were run by the enterprising maths department. We established a sort of tradition of meeting up for dinner in London during the vacations inevitably visiting a rather quirky, restaurant in Soho where we were often the only diners. When it came to our final year, we both managed to obtain ‘Firsts’ but whilst this entailed a major effort on my part, Jeff just seemed to breeze through his finals.

That summer, we took a brief holiday in Greece and Turkey before settling down to postgraduate degrees in London; I joined a pharmacology lab at the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincolns Inn Fields and Jeff, a lab in the (then) Imperial Cancer Research Laboratories which, conveniently, was just next door. We shared a series of digs together during our PhD years where we often entertained our Sheffield classmates when they visited London, as well as other friends we made along the way.

Like many, or probably most, postgraduates, we lived constantly at the very edge of our financial resources, but we eked out our grants by teaching A Level biology at a nearby technical college in the evenings. The extra money was, I recall, largely spent on crates of wine and entertaining friends and colleagues to dinner. Zoology is a subject of immense scope and in addition to his demanding PhD work, Jeff lost no time in tackling one of the central questions in biology: evolution.

Together with a colleague, Edward Steele, he worked on a book Somatic selection and adaptive evolution which called for a fresh look at the Lamarckian model of inheritance which had largely been side-lined by Darwin’s work. One imprint of this book was eventually published by a company of which Jeff was a founder. For his post-doctoral training, Jeff moved to the Ontario Cancer Institute in Toronto, while I moved away to a different lab in the UK. Not a single condition, but a cluster of related conditions sharing some common symptoms, understanding how cancer begins and progresses, is a major intellectual challenge. It is not a new disease, but has become more prominent in our ageing society because many other hitherto fatal diseases have been largely eliminated. Jeff, never one to shy away from big problems, developed a particular interest in those cancers which predominately affected women, especially breast cancer. During these ‘Toronto’ years, we obviously saw much less of each other although I was able to visit him sometimes when I was on the conference circuit in North America and vice versa, when he was in London. One thing that I remember from those years was that Jeff had become fascinated by the art of the Inuit people in Canada and by the time he left Toronto 5 years later, he had built up a large collection of their paintings. He knew many of the artists personally and in his ‘spare time’ even ran a gallery featuring indigenous Canadian art.

Jeff returned to the UK in 1980-1988 to take up a lectureship in Biochemistry at Queen Elizabeth College (as was) and so we were able to see each other more frequently, often spending New Year’s Eve together. I think that it is fair to say that this was not Jeff’s happiest appointment: he was disillusioned with the state of UK science as it appeared to him at the time. But perhaps his academic disappointment was mitigated by frequent visits to a nearby Japanese art gallery and, especially, by
the fact that during these years he met, and married, his soulmate Ooi-Thye Chong. As a couple, they were a perfect match.

Eventually though, he made the decision to return to North America to further his career, and obtained a post at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. It was while working there that he did some of his most seminal work. He was the
recipient of the very prestigious American Cancer Society’s Medal of Honor for Basic Science Research in 2010 and elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science a year later. During his New York years, we kept in touch and saw each other occasionally, usually when we were travelling to scientific meetings. During this period of their lives, Jeff and Ooi-Thye developed another interest; collecting Japanese art of the Edo period - and in particular the preparatory drawings from which the final woodblock prints were prepared and coloured. They ultimately became internationally known for their collection which they lent to various institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Fine Arts in the USA and, the Royal Academy and the British Museum in the UK. Writing in the journal ‘Impressions’ published by the Japanese Art Society of America, Rosina Buckland commented of the collection “.. the works in the Pollard Collection express an overriding concern for inspired draftsmanship and lyricism. Pollard looks for power in the individual work, heedless of affiliation” 1 .

Jeff’s next move was to bring him back to the UK. In 2012, he was appointed head of the MRC Centre for Reproductive Health the University of Edinburgh where he soon gained an international reputation for his work on the fundamental role of macrophages in the pathogenesis of cancer (as articulated, for example, in his article in Nature Cancer Reviews 2 ). He also founded a company (Macomics) to commercialise his research. He received many accolades for his science during these years including, in 2015, election to the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

My wife Lindsay and I often visited them in their beautiful Georgian house in Edinburgh, which was hung with paintings, drawings and prints they had collected during the years. We often met up at at New Year, happily renewing our earlier custom. The four of us sometimes took short holidays and often attended Glyndebourne together.

Tragically, his last few years in Edinburgh were marred by a difficult struggle with pancreatic cancer. Even though he managed to keep his lab and his company running to the end, he eventually succumbed to the disease in May this year. Jeff was unique individual. A genuine Renaissance man: an intellectual with interests that bridged both the arts and sciences. He was an aesthete who loved the beautiful things in life such as beautiful art, good wines, good food and good company. He was a devoted and supportive husband, and he was generous and loyal to his many friends around the world.

With his passing, parts of our lives seem to have gone missing too.

Written by Rod Flower, December 2023.

1. Rosina Buckland, Impressions, 42, 101-123, 2021.
2. L. Cassetta and J. W. Pollard. Nat Rev Cancer 2023 Vol. 23 Issue 4 Pages 238-257