The sudden death of an expert in poisoning

Professor John Henry:
Death of one of the World widest known expert in drugs and poisons (and member of Opus Dei).

Professor John Henry, who died on May 8 aged 68, was one of the world’s leading authorities on drugs and poisons; his frequent appearances on television and radio made him Britain’s best-known toxicologist, and after his retirement in 2004 he continued to work as a medical expert, sought after around the world.

When, in September 2004, the Ukrainian opposition Viktor Yushchenko, fell seriously – and mysteriously – ill during the election campaign, Henry was sent a photograph of the patient, and immediately concluded, due to the characteristic pattern of acne, that Yushchenko had been poisoned by dioxin. This had been missed by the who had examined Yushchenko in Vienna, but a month later they confirmed the diagnosis.

Henry was also called in as an adviser in the more recent cases of the former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko and Pakistan’s coach Bob Woolmer. It was characteristic of him that he did not charge for these services.

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As professor of accident and emergency medicine at Imperial College, , Henry broke new ground in the of poisoning and drug overdose, helping to save the lives of many patients. He was also honorary consultant in accident and emergency medicine at St Mary’s, Paddington, and visiting professor to the Radcliffe Infirmary, .

John Anthony Henry was born at Greenwich on March 11 1939, the eldest of four surviving ; a fifth died in infancy. His Irish father, John Aloysius Henry, was a general practitioner and served as team doctor to Millwall Football Club, bequeathing John a lifelong interest in football. John attended St Joseph’s Academy, Blackheath, run by the De la Salle Brothers, and went on to study Medicine at ’s College, London. As a 20-year-old medical student, he joined Opus Dei as a “numerary member”, committing himself to a life of celibacy.

Throughout his busy life he went to Mass every day; and every day he made time for two periods of prayer or meditation, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon or evening. It was from this deep spirituality that he derived his drive and dedication to his work, as well as his infectious cheerfulness.

In 1969, while on holiday in Italy, Henry caught a throat infection which was inadequately treated, and this led to kidney failure. It was thought unlikely that he would live long as a dialysis patient, and he gave up medicine for five years.

During this period his faith expressed itself in cheerful service to all those around him. The residents of Netherhall House, the student hall in Hampstead of which he was director from 1968 to 1970, were greatly impressed by his courage. Although often exhausted by his illness, and by his treatment, he was continually available to help those around him and never lost his capacity for enjoying life.

The then head of Opus Dei, Mgr Josemaria Escrival (now St Josemaria), prayed fervently that a suitable kidney could be found for a transplant.

In 1976, shortly after Escrival’s death, a perfectly matching kidney was found, and a successful operation gave Henry a new lease of life. He always believed that the matching kidney came about through St Josemaria’s intercession.

Henry returned to a career in medicine as a registrar at Guy’s Hospital. Having suffered as a patient on dialysis for more than seven years, he exhibited great compassion to all the patients in his care.

In 1982 he was appointed consultant physician at the National Poisons Unit at Guy’s Hospital, where he saved a great many lives, particularly those of children who had accidentally ingested potentially lethal household products. He carried out research into how poisons worked and how they could be counteracted.

Henry had the ability to explain complex medical matters in simple terms, and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of drugs and poisons. A typical story is of the occasion when he was in the resuscitation room attending a patient suffering from a drug overdose. When a colleague asked Henry why the patient’s urine was green in colour he immediately replied that the patient had obviously taken the drug Rohypnol. Tests proved this to be so.

He was especially concerned about the devastation wrought on lives by
illegal drugs. He insisted that cannabis was much more dangerous than simple
tobacco; it eroded users’ volition, drive and dignity, destroying the
personality and having devastating effects on society.

He would also explain how ecstasy and amphetamines could cause death through
hyperpyrexia and dehydration. He was one of the first to warn that the risks of taking ecstasy had been underestimated; and such were his vivid descriptions of the results of nightclub abuse that at one stage he was known colloquially as “Mr E”. He was an expert witness at the inquest into the death of Leah Betts, who died after taking an ecstasy tablet at her 18th birthday party in 1995 and whose case became a cause célèbre.

Henry was also committed to working with the media, a rare quality amongst  of his calibre, and was held in much affection by the many journalists he helped over the years. Henry’s accessiblity led on one occasion to his being hoaxed into appearing on Ali G’s show to talk about the dangers of hard drugs.

In April this year Henry’s transplanted kidney failed, and he was admitted to hospital to have it removed. He appeared to be recovering well from the operation, but a week later suffered an internal haemorrhage which proved fatal.

On the day of his death he made a posthumous appearance as an expert on poisons and drugs on a BBC Horizon programme.

The Telegraph.co.uk (obituaries 12-05-2007)