Bryan Jennett, 1927-2008

February 21, 2008

Bryan Jennett, a pioneering and controversial professor of neurosurgery, died on 26 January aged 81.

Professor Jennett, who was head of neurosurgery at the University of Glasgow for 23 years, invented the Glasgow Coma Scale for assessing head injury.

His name entered the public consciousness when a 1980 BBC Panorama report questioned his test for establishing brainstem death. The television programme suggested that patients were being diagnosed as braindead prematurely, possibly because of a need for donor organs. The show featured a US heart attack patient who was saved from becoming a premature kidney donor only when the transplant surgeon noticed the man's Adam's apple move.

Graham Teasdale, the co-inventor of the coma scale, told Times Higher Education that Professor Jennett had been "hijacked". He said: "The programme was a set-up. Bryan wasn't prepared for what was coming - they presented him with patients from the US whom he knew nothing about. It left the diagnosis of brain death in doubt and set back organ transplantation for a time."

The programme was attacked for distorting the facts, and evidence emerged that none of the US patients could have been declared braindead according to the professor's criteria. This was not enough for Professor Jennett. Despite pressure from the medical profession to keep quiet, he set about collecting evidence to prove the validity of his tests.

"If a subject was big and important enough, he would not let it go," Professor Teasdale said. "He assembled the clinical evidence, collecting information from hundreds of patients, then he insisted that a second BBC programme be made allowing the doctors to state their case."

Professor Jennett's tests, which establish the absence of reaction to stimuli in patients on life support, remained in use, and UK donor numbers recovered.

Professor Jennett also coined the term "persistent vegetative state" for brain-damaged patients who are awake but lack awareness, and he gave evidence in the Tony Bland High Court case, which established PVS as a criterion for withdrawing artificial feeding.

During his decades at Glasgow, Professor Jennett established the university as a global academic centre in the treatment of head injuries. At one point, seven out of ten UK professors in neurosurgery were trained at Glasgow.

"He inspired a generation by his determination to advance his field by the rational application of science," Professor Teasdale said. "He was also incredibly kind and generous to me personally. He always supported those who followed his path."

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com.

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