Sir John Savill

Address by the Public Orator, Mr Nigel Siesage, to be given on 19 July 2018

What comes to mind first when you think of a doctor? The dedicated family doctor or the idealistic junior hospital doctor - both familiar types from TV drama? The hard-pressed A&E doctor wrestling with the problems of the NHS, as brought to us on Casualty?  Or a courageous Médecins Sans Frontières doctor working among the poor in difficult and dangerous conditions?

John Savill is none of these. He falls into another category – less acknowledged in TV fiction or the news headlines – to which we owe just as much. These are the clinician scientists, or clinical academics, like many of those on the stage here.  We depend on the work of these people to advance the frontiers of medicine through their work in the lab and with patients, and through their role as teachers of future generations of doctors. And they depend in turn on the effectiveness of the Medical Research Council, the organisation which Sir John has led with great success for the past 8 years.

John Savill was born in 1957 and went to school in Twickenham. This may account for a lifetime’s interest in rugby, though it was at others sports that he excelled - hockey, which he continued to play until relatively recently; and cricket, where he is still involved in a charity which introduces the game to primary schools.

Medicine was his first ambition – stimulated initially by a visit from the family GP when he was 11. John was fascinated by the idea that understanding biology would enable the doctor to make him better. That visit surely deprived the world of a future Sherlock Holmes – detection being his fall-back career of choice. So after obtaining a first class degree in Physiological Sciences at Oxford he went to Sheffield University to take -  like those who are graduating here today – the degrees of Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery.

Honours are awarded for degrees in medicine only very rarely, in recognition of exceptional performance throughout the course. John graduated with honours and three distinctions – an indication of considerable promise. He then worked in hospitals in Sheffield and Nottingham. A turning point was a post as Registrar in London, which covered the renal unit at Hammersmith Hospital, then the home of the Royal Postgraduate Medical School. Here he made an impression on Sir Keith Peters, himself an honorary graduate of this University, and this led to a series of appointments, culminating in a Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellowship and Senior Lectureship in the unit. In 1993, at the tender age of 36, he was appointed Professor in Medicine and Head of the Division of Renal and Inflammatory Disease at Nottingham Medical School, where he also served as Head of School for a year before being appointed Professor of Medicine at Edinburgh in 1998.

By this stage, Professor Savill was already widely recognised for his research, in which he has continued to be actively involved despite the increasing demands of his leadership roles.  His research has identified crucial mechanisms by which inflammatory cells undergo programmed cell death and are removed from sites of injury in the kidney and other organs. This has been widely influential, revealing fundamental insights into how regulation of cell death and survival contributes to a whole range of inflammatory diseases; and it has revealed important new targets for treatment.

His commitment to his own research is paralleled by the encouragement he consistently gives to clinician scientists as a body, by example, through his energy and enthusiasm, and through advocacy. He is rightly proud of the part he played in designing, developing and implementing a comprehensive career development pathway for young doctors interested in research.

With his appointment at Edinburgh came increasingly prominent positions both in the University and on the national stage. Chief among these were his appointment as Vice-Principal and Head of the College of Medicine & Veterinary Medicine (the Edinburgh equivalent of our own Professor Baker), Chief Scientist to the Scottish Government, and finally, from 2010 to April this year, Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council (the MRC).

The MRC is the UK’s principal agency for high quality clinical research. It has a budget of nearly £800 million, approximately half of which is distributed in peer-reviewed grants and postgraduate studentships to universities like ours.

Sir John took over at a challenging time, soon after the financial crash. He combines tough pragmatism with strategic insight – characteristics for which he is widely respected, and which were particularly valuable as he defended the MRC’s budget through difficult comprehensive spending reviews, and worked to improve the MRC’s contribution to health and wealth. His tenure included many important initiatives, with substantial investment in bioinformatics and improved collaboration with industry. He particularly valued the opportunity to stimulate the development of health data research, believing that the effective use of data will revolutionise medical research and practice.

It is evidence of his immense capacity for work that he was able to hold the College role and the MRC one simultaneously. John Savill is one of the most highly regarded doctors in the country.  It has been said that when he speaks, people listen. In this 70th anniversary year of the National Health Service, it is particularly appropriate that we honour a man whose research has advanced modern medicine, and whose organisational skills and leadership have enabled others to do so too.

Mr Chancellor, on the recommendation of the Senate and the Council, I present John Stewart Savill, that you may confer upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of Science.

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