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‘He shaped the characters we are’, says Sir Roy Calne colleague





Professor Sir Roy Calne, the world-renowned organ transplant pioneer who died on January 6, “showed us what is possible and what’s not possible”, said his colleague Chris Watson.

Prof Watson, a renowned Cambridge transplant consultant and surgeon in his own right, now retired, worked closely with Prof Calne and knew him away from the theatre.

Professor Sir Roy Calne, the pioneering surgeon who led the first liver transplant operation in Europe, with one of his artworks. Picture: Cambridge University Hospitals/PA
Professor Sir Roy Calne, the pioneering surgeon who led the first liver transplant operation in Europe, with one of his artworks. Picture: Cambridge University Hospitals/PA

“I first met him as a student in 1981,” he said on Monday (January 8). “He held Saturday morning teaching sessions where we could present the cases we’d seen during the week and he made comments about the management of the patient.

“Later, I got to know him personally: I’d started working for him as a registrar in around 1989, it became more of a friendship probably by 1993.

“He had a direct impact on his patients of course and also an indirect impact on many hundreds of thousands of people worldwide through his work on immuno-suppressants.”

The genesis for Prof Calne’s work began in the 1950s.

Transplant pioneer Sir Roy Calne
Transplant pioneer Sir Roy Calne

“He’d read a paper at end of the 1950s showing that a chemical that could immuno-suppress rabbits so he did that with dogs and it was a bit toxic - they developed infections - then he went to the US and worked with worked with Joseph Murray.”

Dr Murray performed the landmark kidney transplant on twins Ronald and Richard Herrick on December 23, 1954. In1990 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

“Arriving in the US,” continued Prof Watson, “he stopped off in New York and picked up some experimental drugs and one of these - Azathioprine - was very successful [as an immuno-suppressant] so he pioneered the development of that. He came back to the UK in 1961 and in 1965 was appointed both Professor of Surgery at Cambridge and a consultant at Addenbrooke’s hospital, where he stayed for 33 years.

“In Cambridge he set up a dialysis programme and was interested in extending his work to liver transplantation and conducted the first successful one in 1968. He was very interested in immunosuppression, stopping rejection with minimal side effects on a patient. In 1977 a new drug came to his attention which he used first in animals to confirm it worked and then went into clinical use within a couple of years - there weren’t the regulations at that point, and patients were dying.

Prof Chris Watson and ACT chief executive, Shelly Thake in one of the wards at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell
Prof Chris Watson and ACT chief executive, Shelly Thake in one of the wards at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell

“He helped develop Ciclosporin [an immuno-suppressant] in the late 1970s, and as a result of his work it became more generally available. This powerful drug, with much less toxicity, transformed transplantation - and allowed successful transplantation of liver, heart, and lungs. He also had a big role in the development of [the immuno-suppressant] Sirolimus and also [targeted cancer drug] Campath, which was developed in the Department of Pathology in Cambridge University, hence the name.”

So how was he day-to-day, in the theatre?

“He was a very quiet operator, sometimes he’d put on some classical music, perhaps chamber music, in the background. If you asked him a question he answered it, and if you made a suggestion he would use it or explain why he didn’t use it.

“Surgery is challenging and he was a man who liked a challenge. With every operation you try and get better than the last one, and some people revel in that sort of challenge and he enjoyed the technical aspects, and the diagnosis, and the treatment.”

Sir Roy’s quiet methods achieved astonishing results, said Prof Watson.

“One of my colleagues who also worked with him said ‘Roy Calne is part of what I am’ and for many of us that’s true. He shaped the characters we are and showed us what is possible and what’s not possible.”

He added: “He was also a very good painter and some of his paintings brighten the walls in the unit. He often painted his patients: he’d chat with them and they’d pose for him while they chatted, some were particularly notable.

Prof Roy Calne, left, with Prof Chris Watson and ACT chief executive, Shelly Thake in one of the wards, 50 years to the day after the first successful procedure at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell.
Prof Roy Calne, left, with Prof Chris Watson and ACT chief executive, Shelly Thake in one of the wards, 50 years to the day after the first successful procedure at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell.

“One was a yeoman warder at the Tower of London and he was painted in his Beefeater uniform, that was very memorable.”

Sir Roy is survived by his wife Patsy, their four daughters and two sons, and his brother, Donald.



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