John Bates was born at Colchester, Essex, where his father John Vincent Bates was a medical practitioner. His brother, David, is also a Fellow of the College and resident in Vancouver, Canada. John married Diana née Rushforth, also a doctor, in 1946. They had two sons and two daughters; one son followed his father into medicine.
Bates was educated at Rugby School and went up to the University of Cambridge to study medicine, his clinicals being undertaken at University College Hospital, London. On qualifying he became house physician to Sir Thomas Lewis' clinical research unit at UCH [Munk’s Roll Vol.IV, p.531]. During the war years, he researched on visual tracking and design of controls in tanks which developed both his mathematical and engineering skills. His main interest was the cerebral organization of movement and he, and his research colleagues, made use of information and computer theory in neurophysiology.
In 1946 John became a member of the external scientific staff of the Medical Research Council, working in E A Carmichael’s neurological research unit [Munk's Roll, Vol.VII, p.91] at The National Hospital for Nervous Diseases. He was made an honorary consultant at the hospital and continued in that position until he retired.
With Wilder Penfield [Munk's Roll, Vol.VII, p.457] and Herbert Jasper at the Montreal Neurological Institute, he studied the technique of recording from the brain of man. Working with Sir Wylie McKissock, he recorded from and stimulated the motor cortex, internal capsule and thalamus, in patients with epilepsy and infantile hemiplegia. He was one of the first neurophysiologists to record the integrated electromyogram. With his technician, John Cooper, he produced the equipment to make the electroencephalogram audible. This enabled him to play the spike and wave of petit mal attacks to an audience - while the patient continued to read - without interrupting the verbal flow.
Bates spent some years on a study of the events in the human electroencephalogram in normal subjects immediately preceding and following a voluntary movement. He recorded from a scalp electrode over the cortical motor area associated with the movements of the opposite hand. To distinguish consistent events from chance fluctuations of the brain potentials he developed the technique of superimposing the tracings, positioned so that the onset of movement was synchronized. This technique was used to bring out the common waveform changes before and after the onset of movement.
He frequently visited Irving Cooper, of New York, who first introduced the making of surgical lesions deep in the cerebral hemispheres for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease. Together, they worked out stimulating and recording techniques. In the UK, he worked with Ian McCaul and Harvey Jackson in the treatment of Parkinsonism and dystonia by stereotactic surgery. He explored the electrophysiology of the thalamus in conscious patients and the relationship of the firing of neurons to tremor, movement and speech. He later worked with J Purdon Martin [Munk's Roll, Vol.VIII, p.323] on patients with Parkinson’s disease due to encephalitis lethargica. This work on postural and balance mechanisms, and the mechanisms used unconsciously to prevent falling, added invaluable knowledge not only to disorders such as Parkinsonism but also to knowledge of the normal.
John Bates was on the editorial board of the Journal of Physiology from 1967-73 and a member of the Electroencephalography Society (now the British Society for Clinical Neurophysiology), serving as president from 1976-78. He was a delightful lecturer; his most exciting lectures being about controversies in neurology which originated in the past and which are still relevant. These were mainly about some aspect of movement. His discussion of the erroneous views of Ferrier [Munk's Roll, Vol.IV, p.246] and the correct views of Jackson were as exciting as a tennis match. He would trace their origin back to their source; for instance, in considering the unsatisfactory term ‘voluntary movement’ he would begin by discussing John Hobbes’ Leviathan, as the 17th Century philosopher was apparently the first thinker to use the word ‘voluntary’ in this context.
John was always full of ideas and he had unusually wide interests, which included learning Italian, writing a paper on gestures of the hand, music, art, architecture and building a house in the garden of his home in West Mailing with the help of one labourer. He correctly diagnosed his own cerebral lesions as they occured and observed his own decline with curiosity and equanimity.
P W Nathan
[The Times, 9 Aug 1993]