Lives of the fellows

Roland Jacob Levinsky

b.16 October 1943 d.1 January 2007
BSc Lond(1965) MB BS(1968) MRCS LRCP(1968) MD MRCP(1972) FRCP(1982)

Roland Jacob Levinsky was a consultant paediatrician at Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH), London, where he performed the UK’s first bone-marrow transplants in children, and a leading immunologist who researched into the use of gene therapy for children with fatal inherited diseases.

He was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa, the son of Nehemiah, a businessman. His father, a Communist, had moved to South Africa with his British born wife to escape Nazi persecution on the Polish/Lithuanian border. Nehemiah died in 1956 when Roland was 13, and his mother moved the family back to the UK three years later. After some years at Grey College in Bloemfontein, Levinsky completed his education at William Ellis School in London, where he was one of a group warned by the headmaster that the holding of leftwing views could ‘jeopardise their chances of getting decent scientific jobs’.

At University College London (UCL), he studied physical anthropology, inspired by the zoologist J Z Young. After qualifying in medicine in 1968 he did house jobs at Great Ormond St Hospital, going on to be a medical registrar and Nuffield research fellow. Part of his paediatric training took place at Birmingham University. Following this he embarked on a year’s postgraduate training and research on auto-immune kidney disease in Philadelphia; this gave him the expertise that was to shape his future.

In 1978 he returned to the UK and joined the Institute for Child Health (ICH) which was attached to GOSH. Working with John Soothill [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web), he immediately started research on the gene therapy that one of his former colleagues, Christine Kinnon, felt he would identify as his finest achievement. She said that ‘He inspired people...We were working on primary immunodeficiency and we wanted to clone genes. No one had done that type of work at all. But he was adamant’. In 1979 he carried out the first bone marrow transplant at GOSH. Over the years he transformed the ICH from being a declining establishment into a great research and teaching organisation. Soothill retired as Hugh Greenwood professor of immunology in 1985 and Levinsky succeeded him. A warm and engaging man, he had the ability to appoint good staff and to make sure that they remained. In 1990 he was appointed dean of the ICH and, when the institute merged with UCL, he was appointed vice provost for biomedicine and head of the graduate school, a post he held from 1999.

Three years later, in 2002, he left London and his medical career to become chief executive and vice-chancellor of Plymouth University. He had a vision of a first class university for the south west and, feeling that he had been given a mandate to reorganise the institution, he perceived the need to merge the three existing campuses into a central site. This necessitated closing down a former agricultural college which provoked enormous local opposition including a death threat. The female student making the threat later claimed it was a prank, and he permitted her to stay and take her degree. He wrote that ‘good universities should be generators of ideas and incubators of culture’. Interested in the arts as well as the sciences, one of the initiatives he championed was Peninsula Arts, an organisation devoted to promoting creativity in the local area. The university flourished under his leadership and, after five years, was much higher in the rankings published by the Guardian. Before he took the post he did a part-time MA in Russian history, in order, he claimed, to remind himself what it was like to be a student.

While working in gene therapy research, he played a large part in the reorganisation of immunodeficiency healthcare in the UK and was a founding member of the Academy of Medical Sciences and president of the European Society of Immunodeficiency. He wrote and co-authored over 250 scientific papers on subjects such as immune complex disease, food antigen handling by the gut, immunodeficiency and bone marrow transplantation. Two multi-author books on immunodeficiency diseases were edited by him, and he was on the editorial board of several important immunological journals as well as, for five years, the Archives of disease in childhood.

An enthusiastic sailor, possibly inspired by a spell as a ship’s surgeon in early 1970s on the SS Oriana, he crossed the Atlantic in 1996 in his own yacht, the Meridian of Beaulieu. He was also a talented potter, making porcelain ceramic articles in a kiln in his back garden.

In 1971, he married Anne Elisabeth (‘Beth’) née Brigden. She was a teacher and her father, William Wallace Brigden [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web] was a distinguished consultant cardiologist. They had two daughters, Nicola and Sarah, and a son, Josh.

Levinsky died while walking his dog with his wife on a blustery New Year’s Day. A high voltage power cable became detached from a pylon and hit him on the head, killing him instantly. Beth and their children survived him.

RCP editor

[Daily Telegraph 3 January 2007; Guardian 23 January 2007; The Independent 29 January 2007; Lancet 2007 369 268; BMJ 2007 The Times 12 February 2007]

(Volume XII, page web)

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