Lives of the fellows

Michael Francis Oliver

b.3 July 1925 d.7 June 2015
CBE(1985) MB ChB Edin(1947) MRCP Edin(1951) MD(1957) FRCP Edin(1957) MRCP(1963) FFCM(1974) FRCP(1969) Hon FACC(1973) Hon MD Karolinska(1980) Hon MD Bologna(1985) FESC(1986) FRSE(1987) Hon FRCPI(1988) Hon FRACP(1988) FFPH

Michael Francis Oliver was the Duke of Edinburgh professor of cardiology at the University of Edinburgh and a leading cardiovascular researcher. He was born in Borth, a small village near Aberystwyth, the son of Wilfrid Francis Lenn Oliver, a retired captain and landowner, and Cecilia Beatrice Oliver née Daniel, the daughter of a colonel in the Royal Scots. He was educated at St Peter’s, Seaford and then Marlborough College. After the death of his father when he was 15, his mother married again and Oliver’s stepfather, Hugh Leishman, a local general practitioner, encouraged him to study medicine. He went to the University of Edinburgh and qualified in 1947.

He held house posts at the Royal Infirmary, Edinburgh, where he was inspired by Rae Gilchrist [Munk’s Roll, Vol.X, p.164] and decided to specialise in cardiology. From 1948 to 1950 he was in general practice in Leith and then returned to the Royal Infirmary, where he was a research fellow and senior research fellow. From 1961, he became a consultant physician in the department of cardiology, and in 1974 he was appointed to a personal chair. In 1978, he was made the Duke of Edinburgh professor of cardiology.

In 1964, with the cardiologist Desmond Julian, he established Europe’s first intensive coronary care unit at the Royal Infirmary, and went on to found the university’s academic department of cardiovascular medicine.

From the early 1950s he began to study cholesterol and lipoproteins and their role in endocrine and heart diseases. In 1954, he showed that patients with coronary heart disease had higher concentrations of cholesterol than an age-matched control group. He went on to lead some of the earliest controlled trials of cholesterol-lowering drugs, including a 1963 study of clofibrate. While he found that healthy middle-aged men who took the drug were less likely to develop non-fatal cardiac problems, the overall rate of fatal incidents did not improve and those on clofibrate were shown to have a slightly higher risk of dying from non-cardiovascular causes. He concluded that pharmaceutical efforts to reduce cholesterol might lead to adverse biological changes.

His view changed following the development of statins. In 1994, a major study of the statin simvastatin showed health benefits in patients who already had heart disease. Oliver co-authored an editorial urging the use of the drugs to lower patients’ cholesterol, but he remained sceptical about the benefits of lowering cholesterol in people with moderate cholesterol concentrations. Later he cautioned against the over medicalisation of elderly patients; when he was 82 he wrote an opinion piece in the British Medical Journal warning of over diagnosis and treatment (‘Let’s not turn elderly people into patients’ BMJ 2009 338 873).

After he retired from his Edinburgh post in 1989 he moved to London as director of the Wynn Institute for Metabolic Research at Imperial College London and an honorary professor at the National Heart and Lung Institute.

Oliver was president of the British Cardiac Society from 1980 to 1984 and of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh from 1986 to 1989. In 1985 he was awarded a CBE.

Outside medicine he enjoyed skiing, shooting and sailing, English porcelain and antiques. In his retirement, he spent more time at his old farmhouse in Umbria, Italy, and became an expert on Italian Renaissance art.

In 1948 he married Margaret Yool Abbey, a doctor. They had three sons and a daughter. They later divorced and he married for a second time, to Helen Daniel. She predeceased him, as did his eldest son, John, who was killed in a car crash. Michael Oliver was survived by his children, Mark, Sarah and Paul, and by five grandchildren.

RCP editor

[The Guardian 8 July 2015 – accessed 8 August 2017; The Telegraph 9 July 2015 – accessed 8 August 2017; The Independent 18 July 2015 – accessed 8 August 2017; BMJ 2015 351 4470 – accessed 8 August 2017; The Lancet 2015 386(9989) 130 – accessed 8 August 2017; The Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh – accessed 8 August 2017]

(Volume XII, page web)

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