John Maurice Laing, 1918-2008

May 29, 2008

A philanthropist who financed the world's first chair of complementary medicine and continued to fund it even as research began to undermine his faith in the field, has been remembered at a memorial service.

Sir Maurice Laing, a member of the Laing construction dynasty, served as an RAF pilot in the Second World War, was the first president of the Confederation of British Industry in the 1960s and was chairman of the family business between 1976 and 1982.

In his retirement, he took a keen personal interest in complementary medicine, funding a professorship in the field at the University of Exeter.

Edzard Ernst, who was appointed to the post when it was established in 1993, shared his recollections of Sir Maurice, who has died aged 90, after a memorial service last week. Describing how he quit his job in Vienna to take the post after Sir Maurice put up £1 million to fund it, he said it was the benefactor's stated belief that the discipline would "go nowhere without a proper chair at a British university".

Professor Ernst said: "The enthusiasts of alternative medicine were jubilant; finally their prayers had been answered. The quack-busters were up in arms: was this the dawn of a new age of unreason?

"At a press conference arranged by the university a journalist asked how I would deal with sceptical colleagues from conventional medicine and science. I said: 'That's no problem, I'll simply be more sceptical than they are.' Everybody giggled and I glanced at Sir Maurice, who smiled."

Interestingly, while much of the research carried out by Professor Ernst was at odds with Sir Maurice's strongly held belief in the value of alternative medicine, he never pulled the plug on the post, instead stumping up yet more money when it was needed.

After ten years, the £1 million endowment ran out and Professor Ernst turned to him for more funding after promises of money from other sources fell through. Sir Maurice sent a cheque in the post for another £500,000, made out in his name.

"It took him no time at all to comprehend and respect that I had no plans to promote anything and was devoted to scientifically testing these treatments," Professor Ernst said. "He began to hear from numerous sources that I was not sufficiently supportive of the field, but he kept encouraging me to do the rigorous science.

"Never once did he seem bothered when our results did not match his expectations and that, I think, shows the greatness of the man. In that way he has done more for determining the truth about alternative medicine than anyone else I know."

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