An engineer at heart

On retiring from engineering, Stephen Seely took the surprising step of starting a second career in medical research. As he tells Douglas Friedli, knowledge gained in his former profession helped him develop a new, unorthodox theory about the causes of he

There are many careers open to qualified engineers, but medical research is not usually considered among them. So Stephen Seely, a former transformer engineer who, since retiring from his first career, has published dozens of papers on his specialist subjects of the heart and muscle movement, is something of an exception. He believes, though, that engineers have much to contribute to our understanding of the way the body works.

The missing link between engineering and medicine (leaving aside genetics) is biophysics. This little-known subject uses knowledge of physical phenomena such as mechanics, electricity and magnetism to explain how biological systems work. At the moment, there are just three UK institutions teaching biophysics, compared with 75 teaching biochemistry.

`Biophysics is 200 years behind biochemistry,’ says Seely. `It’s time somebody took an interest in it, and an engineer is eminently suitable for the task. If, for example, we went to another planet and found an alien civilisation with entirely different mechanisms from us, it would be engineers who would be best qualified to find out how they work.’

His own qualification was in electrical engineering, which got him a job working on transformers and powers systems with British Thomson-Houston in 1942. Although he published occasional papers in technical journals, Hungarian-born Seely regarded his job as `just work. I came from a poor country. When I got a job on which I could run a car and buy a house, that was so amazing for me. It was a piece of heaven.’

He stayed with the company, later part of AEI and then part of GEC, until he took early retirement at the age of 60.

It was just before retiring, in 1970, that his interest in medicine was sparked. Two friends from work died within a month from the same cause: heart disease. Three weeks after leaving work, bored with having nothing to do, he set out to find out what had killed his colleagues.

He used two main approaches. The first was to analyse food and drink consumption and mortality rates between different countries. This showed a high degree of correlation between heart disease and milk consumption – higher than the correlation with fat, for example.

The other approach was to examine the working of the heart itself, which is where his engineering perspective came in useful. `The heart operates like an intermittent pump,’ he explains. `It does not generate any pressure during diastole [the part of the cardiac cycle where blood flows into the heart]. There must be something which evens it out, a flywheel-like instrument which takes energy from the prime mover in one part of the cycle and returns it to the system at another part of the cycle.’

This role is performed by the arteries which lie closest to the heart. They form an elastic reservoir and expand when blood is pumped into them, explains Seely. `They tend to rigidify, to lose elasticity, under the best of circumstances. The elastin content of their muscles have an affinity for calcium and if your calcium intake is too high, calcium encrustation tends to develop on them, making them inflexible.’

The connection between calcium and heart disease was made by early pioneers of heart medicine, says Seely, but was abandoned because nothing was known about arterial elasticity. Then, the discovery of cholesterol in the arteries of heart disease victims meant that fat got the blame. But the debate is not yet over. `I am trying to revive interest in calcification as the root of all evil,’ Seely says.

His initial research was published in 1976, and was spotted by a Manchester University lecturer who believed he was on to something. Seely was taken on as a research fellow by the University’s cardiology department, where he continued his second career. Over 50 publications followed, including articles in The Lancet and The Guardian; a book, Diet Related Diseases; and dozens of medical papers.

At first he was flattered by the thousands of requests he received for reprints of his articles, but he soon realised that changing medical opinions is not easy.

`It’s difficult to get my ideas across,’ he says. `Journals are willing to print my articles but the readers do not seem to take them in, or take them in very slowly. Only 20 years later are people beginning to believe me.’

Seely believes his ideas are finally beginning to have an impact, with one US physiologist recently citing his work as a major influence.

Now in his second retirement, Seely still takes an interest in muscle movement and in picking holes in Darwin’s theory of evolution. And he has not drunk milk since 1976.

Stephen Seely at a glance

Born: Budapest

Age: 89

Education: BSc electrical engineering, Edinburgh University

First job: Apprentice electrical engineer, British Thomson-Houston, Rugby

Last job: Research fellow, cardiology department, Manchester University

Interests: Chinese art