General Internal Medicine
Designatory Letters: 
MB ChB 1967; PhD 1973; MA 1975; DSc 1984; ScD 1993; FRCPE 1996; FRCSEd 2000; FRSE 2007

(Contributed by Iain MacIntyre)

Matthew Kaufman possessed a formidable intellect, a strong work ethic and a meticulous attention to detail, all of which he used to great effect in every area of his varied and productive career. He will be remembered as a staunch defender of undergraduate anatomy teaching and latterly as a medical historian, but it was arguably as a leading authority on mouse embryology that he made his greatest contributions. His collaboration with Martin Evans on techniques of cultivating embryonic mice stem cells, first published in Nature, lead on to the science of embryonic stem cell research and opened the possibility of genetic manipulation in the management of human disease.

From  Westminster City Grammar School, Matt came to Edinburgh to study medicine where, in the dissecting room as a second year student, I found myself next to him dissecting the thorax while he, a third year, dissected head and neck. He proved to be a very focussed individual whose skill at dissection was matched by a seeming encyclopaedic knowledge of anatomy, yet he was always happy to help his anatomically challenged fellow students.  

His interest in heritage was apparent in student days.  He joined the Royal Medical Society (RMS) (founded 1737) attracted by its huge library (which contained many rare and valuable volumes) and by its traditions - at that time members still attended meetings in evening dress. Since 1852 the Society had met in rooms in Melbourne Place just off the Lawnmarket, but during Matt’s time as secretary of the RMS a compulsory purchase order saw it demolished by the local authority. Matt had the foresight to rescue the carved stone eagle from the roof and, in the new premises it became a treasured relic of that building. He became president of the RMS, and would later write the history of its buildings and of the library, most of which was sold at Sotheby’s in 1969 and dispersed around the world. On his later return to Edinburgh he would again become a great supporter of the RMS.

After junior hospital posts Matt decided on an academic career, spending a year at the then Institute of Animal Genetics in Edinburgh where research in embryology and genetics was flourishing under the inspirational influence of CH Waddington. There, in the laboratory of Professor (later Dame) Anne MacLaren, he researched techniques of in-vitro fertilisation, the start of his career as an embryologist. After completing a PhD on mouse parthenogenesis at Cambridge University, he was appointed anatomy lecturer there, continuing to develop embryology research, despite a large anatomy teaching workload. During two years in Israel he researched techniques of parthenogenesis, an experience which was to prove valuable in his work on haploid mouse embryos. His technique of hormonal manipulation allowed the embryonal cell mass to increase without embryonic development. He shared this technique and his technical expertise in micromanipulation of the mouse embryo and isolation of blastocysts with Martin Evans, a researcher in the Genetics Department who had been trying to cultivate embryonic stem cells from embryonal carcinoma cells, at that stage without success. Their collaboration resulted in preparations of increasing numbers of pluripotential cells which could be cultured indefinitely in vivo and which they called ‘EK cells’, for Evans-Kaufman. The work was published in Nature in 1981. In the same year Gail Martin, in the USA, also cultivated these cells from early embryos, and her term ‘embryonic stem cells’ was to become accepted.

After Matthew Kaufman was appointed to the prestigious chair of anatomy in Edinburgh in 1985, Evans went on to use  embryonic  stem cells to create specific gene modifications in mice, work which would lead to a knighthood in 2004 and a  share of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2007.

In Edinburgh Matt continued work on mouse embryology that was to come to fruition in 1992 with the publication of his magnum opus The Atlas of Mouse Development. This was the culmination of 10 years of painstaking effort, which involved making serial sections in several directions and at multiple levels at each stage of embryonic development and then providing explanatory notes for each, resulting in some 1,500 fully annotated images. This became recognised as the definitive work on the subject. To complement this he compiled, with his friend and colleague Jonathan Bard, The Anatomical Basis of Mouse Development (1999) which rapidly became a standard resource for developmental biologists. The advent of digital imaging allowed colleagues at the MRC Human Genetics unit to create a digital atlas of mouse development, based on Matt’s original slides and this was extended to produce 3D computer models of mouse embryos at successive stages of development.
Matt continued to contribute to this project until 2011 and it is now available online (

The early success and reputation of the Edinburgh medical school was based in no small part on excellence in anatomy teaching, and in the late twentieth century that still lay at the heart of the pre-clinical curriculum, with a succession of prestigious anatomists holding the chair. Matt arrived back in Edinburgh at a time when pressures were growing to reduce anatomy teaching time, a trend given further impetus by the publication of the GMCs Tomorrow’s Doctors in 1993. Although ‘browbeaten by academic colleagues’ Matt doggedly opposed this drive toward perceived modernity which he felt not only diminished a proud anatomy heritage but appeared to lack an evidence base and risked producing less competent doctors. He predicted that these changes would have ‘a disastrous effect on the surgical profession’.  Yet the force for change was inexorable and during the 20 years from 1980 anatomy teaching in Scottish medical schools was reduced by 60% with concomitant reduction in staff.

The early 1990s saw yet another facet of his career start to emerge. Matt produced a series of meticulously researched papers on aspects of the history of medicine, particularly in Scotland. These included detailed biographies of a range of anatomists, surgeons and physicians, many of whom had been previously neglected, and major biographies of some better known figures such as the anatomist John Barclay and the surgeon Robert Liston. His books on medical teaching in Edinburgh, on the history of the chair of anatomy, of the chair of military surgery, on phrenology in Edinburgh and his history of musket ball and sabre injuries have together made a large and important addition to the corpus of knowledge of Scottish medical history. All are written with his characteristic attention to detail and hardly a week goes by without my reading something he wrote.

That attention to detail was evident in his refereeing of historical papers. When I once asked what he made of a paper I had sent he gave that fleeting half smile and replied ‘It was terrible – but I have made some suggestions.’ Matt’s suggestions, always copious, always written in longhand in his elegant script, would range from analysis of the concept, the context and the design of a paper to the tiniest of typos. His ‘suggestions’ were always constructive.

In 2007 he retired from the university chair and in the same year he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He was now able to devote more time and energy to support the Royal Medical Society, where his experience and academic stature inspired new generations of medical students.

In South Edinburgh he became a familiar figure with his neatly trimmed beard, his trademark black beret and vintage briefcase. He always seemed to walk at a brisk pace, giving the impression that he had no time to waste and much to do. 

Matt was blessed with a happy home life.  Claire was a patient, tolerant and supportive wife whom he first met when they worked together in hospital in Luton, where they were able to enjoy driving in his huge vintage Armstrong–Siddley. He later bought a 1930s Lagonda and spent many years converting this into a four seater, using his woodworking skills to restore the bodywork. In these, as in all his many activities, he was supported by Claire, who survives him along with his sons Simon and David and grandchildren Angus and Georgia.