Laureation address: Professor Sir John Savill

Honorary Degree of Doctor of Medicine
Laureation by Professor David Crossman, Dean of Medicine

Friday 29 June 2018

Chancellor, it is my privilege to present for the degree of Doctor of Medicine, honoris causa, Professor Sir John Savill.

Sir John Savill is a colossus of clinical medicine. There is almost no part of clinical medical research in the UK that he has not influenced substantially and always for the better. Every clinical academic is pleased to have a bit of John – the advice, the support, the friendship and the magic.

John Savill graduated from Oxford and Sheffield, being awarded his primary medical qualification in 1981. Junior hospital jobs in Sheffield and Nottingham followed and he joined the Hammersmith Hospital in 1985 at a time when that institution’s standing was at its zenith and was the powerhouse of UK clinical medicine.

An MRC clinical training fellowship followed during which time he started what was to become a lifelong interest in inflammatory cell biology. Work from this early fellowship produced two highly valued and much cited papers on cell death and the first description of one of the important ways in which apoptotic (dead) cells are removed – eaten in fact. Indeed, at that stage a favourite slide of John’s in his talks was of the lid of a box of preserved Deglet Nour dates saying, ’Eat me’. You may have seen them, usually at Christmas I imagine. It pressed home the point that an apoptotic cell sends a signal to phagocytic cells that will clear them or ‘eat them’ by engaging with specific cell receptors.

His training continued in general and renal medicine and in 1990 he was awarded a Wellcome Trust Senior Fellowship. In 1993 he became Professor of Medicine at the University of Nottingham, only some nine years after leaving there as an SHO (that’s CMT2 in new terminology).

In 1998 he moved to the University of Edinburgh where he has stayed, building clinical medical research there in a way that Edinburgh now rivals Oxbridge and the big London Colleges, and with this has seen the research income in the College rise from £30m per annum to £230m today. He remains the Regius Professor of Medical Science at the University of Edinburgh.

Along the way he has done many other jobs on top of the day job, which have included Chief Scientist, Health in the Scottish Government and then Chief Executive at the MRC, a post that he held for nearly eight years whilst also being Head of College and a Vice-Principal at the University of Edinburgh.

He led the MRC during one of its most challenging of times following the banking crisis and left it bigger and better than it ever has been.

It is little wonder that the honours have flowed and seem so naturally and unconditionally deserved. Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences, Fellow of the Royal Society and Knight Bachelor are part of the list. There are numerous honorary degrees, to which we enthusiastically add today. It is our privilege.

I first met John in 1985 whilst at the Hammersmith Hospital. I learnt a very great deal at Hammersmith, not all good, one of which though, was that when you are surrounded by people of John’s calibre it is a very good idea to admit it to yourself. John was out of a different drawer from most of us, working alongside him as medical registrars and clinical training fellows – we all knew it even at that early stage. John conducted himself then as he has done ever since. He is interested in the “why” question in medicine, is good-natured, concerned for the wellbeing of those around him and above all conspicuously intelligent. John is just very, very clever.

I could relay numerous stories from those who he has worked with but time does not allow to go into them. What I can say is that every one of these anecdotes that I have been told comes with a sense of appreciation and fondness for the man we simply know as John.

John, you should realise that you are not just respected but you are valued and trusted with fondness by those around you and you should take comfort and enjoyment from that.

Singling out achievements in someone’s career like John’s is pretty tricky. I know, however, that he has had a major influence in setting up the clinical academic training pathway, which has helped so many come through, and has endured the changes of NHS training and fits the wide range of medical specialities in medicine that lie within.

He sees training and education as something to value and works outside of the HEI sector to support development of the young. He is a trustee of Chance to Shine which develops the young through cricket. Now, those who know John a bit are aware that cricket is a major interest. Tea breaks in board meetings, when there is a test match on, are taken at critical stages to allow for scores to be obtained and updated. Travel plans are often based around watching games. I asked him, ‘why cricket?’ He said, “It’s a team game – I like teams” but then went on to say it’s strategic – “you can think people out even when you might be losing. It’s all in the finish, right up to the last minute.”

That intellectual, analytical mind fused with focus and teamwork sums up John pretty well. I asked him what he would have done if he was not a clinical academic. He thought for a while and said a detective or a spy. There is a George Smiley in John – except he answers questions, unlike George Smiley. And, the answers are always right.

Chancellor, in recognition of his major contribution to clinical medicine I invite you to confer the degree of Doctor of Medicine, honoris causa, on Professor Sir John Savill.

Response from Professor Sir John Savill

Now I’m honoured because my degree didn’t involve presenting a thesis or doing an examination. It just happened, so thank you for that. But there is something of an ordeal in speaking like this. And it’s an ordeal that the platform parties share, because all of them are worried about “how long is he going to go on for?” So I’ll be very brief and limit my comments to the medics in the audience if I may, because it’s nearly 40 years to the day that I started my medical career, taking a degree in Oxford. And over those 40 years medicine has been utterly transformed, in this, and many other countries. For example, childhood leukaemia used to carry a mortality rate of nearly 80% - only 20% of children survived. And now over 90% will survive. And the proportion of patients surviving cancer more generally has doubled in those 40 years. And life expectancy has increased by 15 years. And all of these beneficial outcomes are the fruit of medical research.

So I hope at least some of the medics here will have been inspired by their teachers and will want to become research-led doctors working in universities, emulating role models such as your own Dean, Professor Crossman. Most of you who will remain in practice in the UK, will of course work for the NHS, 70 years old this month. And that’s unique in the world in having many opportunities that will enable you to remain research-active whether you work in hospitals or whether you work in primary care.

For example, 600 of Scotland’s general practice partnerships are members of the Primary Care Research Network. And lastly, I think it’s beholden on every clinician to be aware of research in your field so that you can practise evidence-based medicine. So what I would like to think is, in 40 years time, all the medics in this hall will either be research-led, research-active, or research-aware because if you are I think the world will be a better place. Thank you very much.