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Frank Taylor Farmer


Frank Taylor Farmer OBE BSc PhD FInstP FIEE, Medical Physicist, was born September 18th, 1912. He died of cancer on July 16th, 2004. OBE BSc PhD FInstP FIEE, Medical Physicist, was born September 18th, 1912. He died of cancer on July 16th, 2004.77

Frank Farmer was one of the pioneers of the application of physical science to medicine. He started his hospital career in 1940 when medical physics was a new profession, choosing to dedicate his considerable scientific abilities to peaceful ends. Over the ensuing years very many people have benefited from his original contributions to the practice of high technology medicine.
Frank graduated with first class honours in electrical engineering at London University in 1933. He went on to do research into radio wave propagation in the ionosphere, for which he received his doctorate in 1937. From then until 1940 he worked as a research engineer for the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company, Chelmsford.
These early research experiences proved extremely relevant and valuable when he joined the hospital service. His first post was as assistant physicist in the Radiotherapy Department at the Middlesex Hospital, London. There, he began his work on X-ray dosimetry, which led to the development of an accurate electrometer for use with small ionisation chambers. The precise measurement of the radiation output from radiotherapy X-ray machines is crucially important in the treatment of solid tumours since a fine balance has to be struck between the effective destruction of the diseased tissue and the sparing of surrounding healthy tissue. The Farmer Dosemeter is still used as the secondary standard instrument by means of which the consistency of dose delivery is maintained, locally, in radiotherapy departments throughout the country.
In 1945 Frank moved to Newcastle upon Tyne where, for a time, he was sole physicist. Thanks to his ingenuity, his attitude of ‘waste not, want not’, and his familiarity with the Marconi Company, the Marconi deep therapy X-ray machines, installed at the Royal Victoria Infirmary, continued to provide a valuable service to cancer sufferers for many years. However, in the early 1950’s linear accelerator X-ray machines became available, whose operation was based on microwave technology developed for wartime radar. With his knowledge of radio wave propagation Frank was in a good position to collaborate in these developments, and in 1953 the first gantry-mounted, clinical, megavoltage X-ray machine in the world was installed in a specially shielded building at Newcastle General Hospital. A great deal of scientific work was needed to bring it into clinical use, both as regards dosimetry and radiation safety. Nevertheless, the first patients were treated before the end of that year.By now Frank was the leader of a small team of physicists providing intensive scientific support for clinical radiotherapy. He was able to devote attention to other fruitful avenues of research and development. During the 1950’s he expanded his radiation protection activities to provide a film badge dosimeter service for monitoring individual radiation exposure to staff working with X-rays throughout the Northern Region. He also set up one of the first thyroid uptake services in the country; it was from such services that the whole field of nuclear medicine grew. Radioactive iodine-131, a product of nuclear reactors, was administered in trace amounts to patients suspected of having thyroid disease. The proportion of the administered tracer appearing in the thyroid is a measure of thyroid function. The presence of the radioiodine in the thyroid ca
n be detected and quantified by measuring the gamma ray emissions. Frank and his colleagues provided instruments to not only quantify the amount of radioiodine present but to map its distribution in the thyroid. This was a very early application of what has become known as radionuclide imaging, which is now a widely-used diagnostic tool for studying all kinds of organ function.
By the early 1960’s the demand for physical science in medicine was growing rapidly. Once again, with his great knowledge of electronics, Frank was able to rise to the challenge. He led his growing team in research and development in ultrasound and audiometry, and, a little later, in ophthalmology and cardiology. Medical Physics became a department in its own right, with commitments throughout the hospital region. Units of the Regional Department were established on Teesside and in Cumbria, as well as in all three main Newcastle hospitals. Links with the Newcastle University Medical School had always been intimate and in 1967 a Chair of Medical Physics was created. Frank Farmer was appointed the first Professor of Medical Physics at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. By the time of his retirement in 1978 the Regional Department, together with the University Department employed seventy scientific and technical staff.
Outside his department Frank served on numerous radiological and research committees including, for several years, the International Commission on Radiological Units. He was a member of the Hospital Physicists’ Association when it was in its infancy, and helped guide it to maturity. He was appointed its president for the year 1959-60. He was also an active member of the British Institute of Radiology (BIR), becoming its president from 1973-74. Among his many publications were numerous papers on radiation dosimetry, equipment design, radiotherapy treatment planning and radiation protection. With this record it was no surprise that, in 1977, the BIR awarded him the Barclay Medal for outstanding contributions to radiology. In the following (1978) New Year Honours List he received the OBE for his achievements in the application of science to medicine.
Always meticulous and considered in his scientific work, he applied the same attributes to his chairmanship of the Hospital Area Ethics Committee, which he continued to chair for several years after his retirement in 1978. Some time before he retired he joined the Society of Friends. Looking back over his career and the choices that he made in his professional life, his decision to become a Quaker seems entirely consistent. Apart from the spiritual satisfaction that it gave him, it enabled him to continue a life of service to others in his usual self-effacing way.
Frank enjoyed good health almost to the end of his life and was rarely absent from duty through illness. Even in his 80’s he could still be seen cycling around Newcastle. He did not allow his occasional migraines to interfere with his work. He suffered his last illness with equal stoicism, imposing minimal demands on those responsible for his care and, as always, appreciative of the many kindnesses he received in his final days. He died, without fuss, in St. Oswald’s Hospice, Newcastle in the early hours of July 16th.


Phil was born near Wrexham,in Wales,the son of a clergyman.When he was sixteen,the family moved to the Arthur,s Hill district of Newcastle upon Tyne due to a new appointment for his father.
His training in Medicine was in Newcastle and he qualified M.B. ,B.S. in 1968.After house jobs in Medicine and Surgery ,and a year in Dermatology,all at The Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle upon Tyne,he began training in Radiology in the Autumn of 1970,and passed the Diploma in Medical Radiodiagnosis in 1972.Two years later,the Fellowship of The Royal College of Radiologists was achieved.
His great interest was in teaching and in  1981 he was appointed Senior Lecturer in Radiology in the University of Newcastle upon Tyne,based at The Royal Victoria Infirmary.This appointment he held until his retirement in 2002.
In both 1979 and 1982 he was awarded The Lindisfarne Salver,which is awarded annually by final year medical students of Newcastle University to the best teacher and lecturer.He was also internal examiner in Final M.B.,B.S.
Teaching to junior radiologists lead to responsibilities as an examiner for The Royal College of Radiologists in both England and Ireland,and in the Universities of Aberdeen and Liverpool.
As Senior Lecturer in Radiology,Phil was very involved in organising teaching for both undergraduates and radiologists in training.The latter will have memories of a lithograph of J.S.Bach which hung on his office wall.Radiologists trained in Newcastle from 1974 until the date of his retirement owe him an enormous debt of gratitude.
From 1987 he was the editor of Imaging,published by The British Institute of Radiology.His publications,which were many,were mainly on the biliary tract,on which he wrote a chapter in Techniques in Diagnostic Radiology (Edited by Whitehouse and Worthington.Published by Blackwell.) he also contributed to an Atlas of Human Anatomy ( edited by Weir and Abrahams.Published by Wolfe.)
In retirement his love for The Newcastle Bach Choir lead to a celebratory book,A Century of Singing 1915- 2015.
Phil had a fine tenor voice,very necessary for for Welsh hymn tunes as well as Bach Chorales .Walking in the Northumbrian countryside with a camera was a joy to him,as was his marriage to Elaine and their two sons.

Obituary Alice Burridge 17/11/20116


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