John Maurice Laing, 1918-2008

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."

Already registered?

Sign in now if you are already registered or a current subscriber. Or subscribe for unrestricted access to our digital editions and iPad and iPhone app.

Featured Jobs

Head of Research Support Services UNIVERSITY OF LEICESTER
Learning Enhancement Manager UNIVERSITY OF DERBY

Register to continue  

You've enjoyed reading five THE articles this month. Register now to get five more, or subscribe for unrestricted access.

Most Commented

Universities to scale back liberal arts and social science courses

  • David Humphries illustration (24 September 2015)

A Russell Group tagline rap is further proof that we need to reform the academy’s approach, argues Philip Moriarty

  • World University Rankings

US continues to lose its grip as institutions in Europe up their game

  • World University Rankings 2015-2016 methodology

Change for the better: fuelled by more comprehensive data, the 2015-2016 rankings probe deeper than ever

Inspired by previous movement in 1960s, PhD students say that ‘science is not neutral’ and urge scientists to confront their assumptions