Colin David Binnie

1938 - 2019

It is with great sadness that we announce the death of Prof. Colin David Binnie, clinical neurophysiologist, on 21st March 2019. Colin had a long and distinguished career in clinical neurophysiology. Born in 1938, he had a traditional education, graduating from Downing College in Cambridge in 1959 with a first class honours degree in Natural Sciences. He went on to Guy’s Hospital, London for his clinical training qualifying MB, CHB in 1963. He was subsequently awarded an MD in 1968.

Since his school days, when it was rumoured that he had built a simple EEG machine, Colin had been fascinated by the technical aspects of medicine and so naturally went into neurophysiology. He was a senior registrar (1966-69) at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London with James Margerison and then a consultant neurophysiologist at Runwell Hospital in 1969 and from 1970, the consultant in charge of neurophysiology at Barts. His publishing career began with James Margerison whom he succeeded when James unexpectedly died. During his time at Barts he developed digitisation and computerisation of clinical neurophysiological procedures as well as having a serious interest in the careers and research projects of all the staff.

Colin moved to Meer an Bosch at Heemstede, Netherlands, in 1976 and became the director in 1977. He learned the Dutch language, while driving between home and work, a few weeks before he went to Heemstede. He was instrumental in creating the first long-term EEG/Video monitoring unit in the Netherlands and one of the early ones world-wide. Initially, it was on the observation ward, but in 1982 it moved to a special two-bed unit within the EEG department. In this unit he not only introduced long-term EEG and video monitoring but also the continuous monitoring of AED blood levels during these long term studies. He continued his work, already started in the UK, on photosensitivity, collaborating with Henk van der Tweel and Henk Spekreijsse from the Interuniversity Ophthalmological Centre in Amsterdam. He developed a human model of experimental epilepsy amenable to basic physiological studies such as the neurophysiological aspects of pattern-sensitive epilepsy, television epilepsy and the role of pattern in patients with photosensitive epilepsy, the self-induction of epileptic seizures by eye closure, colour and photosensitive epilepsy, and so on. His work on transitory cognitive impairment during interictal discharges, for which he developed a test of continuous EEG, during an adapted and self-pacing Corsi test, which was written out on the EEG and where the patient became his own control, permitted the comparison of test epochs with epileptic discharges against test epochs without. That work, published in Brain with Hans Aarts, was very new and trendsetting and has been cited very often.

In collaboration with colleagues in Utrecht Colin revived the embryonic Dutch National Epilepsy Surgery Program, bringing the first patients with chronic implanted intracerebral and subdural electrodes –especially designed and produced for the project- for seizure monitoring to the EEG department in Meer an Bosch. Based on this early work Cees van Veelen, Alexander van Huffelen and Walter van Emde Boas were able to create the current very active programme in the Netherlands.

Colin played a major role in a number of early phase drug studies, notably the early studies of Lamotrigine and developed the model of photosensitivity as a method for acute single dose efficacy studies of potential AED’s. Also he was active as initiator or participant in a number of international projects in the fields of computer assisted spike detection and digital EEG with, amongst others, Jean Gotman and John Ives. In Meer an Bosch he continued to train and educate technicians, including writing a textbook of EEG technology. He supervised the PhD of Dr Dorothee Kasteleijn on photosensitivity and she subsequently became an international expert on photosensitivity. Many of these people have become senior and influential in the Netherlands.

Young Colin inspecting early EEG digitisation - Mature Colin supervising ECoG

In 1986 there was an opportunity to return to the UK and he came as Consultant Neurophysiologist to the Maudsley hospital, London with the aim of improving and diversifying the epilepsy surgery programme which had been in the Department of Neurosurgery there since 1953. He introduced computerised technology and also improved telemetry facilities, using his considerable expertise from Meer an Bosch; intracranial monitoring was introduced within a year of his arrival. He was also responsible for providing electrocorticography services for the increasing number of operative procedures both diagnostic and therapeutic. In 1995 the neurosciences services at the Maudsley were transferred into Kings’ College Hospital and he replicated the telemetry services there. He initiated the MSC (Epileptology) course. He was awarded a personal chair by the Institute of Psychiatry, (Kings’ College, London) in 1995.
He retired from his fulltime post in 2002. For personal reasons he was unable to pursue his professional activities except for a period when, returning to a long-standing interest, he helped with the reporting of paediatric EEGs. His later professional years were coloured by his devoted caring for his wife Margaret during a long and progressive illness. He is survived by his two children who continued his interests, both in medicine and engineering. In 2008 he finally ceased all professional activities.

His publication record was long and diverse varying between clinical material, technical matters and educational material. Throughout his career he collected around him younger neurophysiologists who he trained to practice, research, and write. He also had a long interest in the training and education of neurophysiological technicians. He wrote textbooks such as A Manual of Electro-encephalographic Technology, CD Binnie et al, 1982, encouraged research projects, and was active in their professional associations. He wrote over 280 peer-reviewed papers and he contributed to and edited many books covering a number of neurophysiological topics. He was recognised by his peers in the UK where he was president of both the BSCN and EPTA and was awarded the Grey Walter medal in 1997 and gave the Geoffrey Parr lecture in 2002. With Brian Meldrum he was awarded the Michael Prize. He had a wide international reputation, he was a frequent contributor to international meetings, often invited to lecture, and had served on two ILAE Commissions.

Away from his professional and family interests he had a life-long and eclectic passion for music, especially opera, and in hiking and walking. Many people have attested to his personal qualities. Although shy and reserved at times, he had a tremendous interest in his trainees, helping them, often outside of their professional connections. He was great at debunking myths, referring to “well known facts” in the medical literature which on more careful assessment could be seen to have absolutely no basis whatsoever in science. They remember with huge affection his intelligence, warmth, wry and self-deprecating humour, and generosity of spirit. He was also a gentleman and in spite of his own great erudition, he never put anyone – junior or senior – on the spot or showed them up. He communicated his own enthusiasm for his subject to his trainees. His influence and inspiration will be greatly missed.

I am indebted to his children, Caroline and Johnathan, and his friends and colleagues who have contributed to this account.

Written by Charles E Polkey