An imposing painting of sailing ships graced the wall behind the desk in the office of Professor Gordon McVie, BSc (Hons), MBChB, MD, FRCP, FRCPEd, FRCPS (Glas), FMedSci, DSc. It was a gift from one of his patients with cancer, a long-term survivor who said the painting reminded her of him, walking quickly through the wards, his white lab coat luffing behind like sails. After dropping ward rounds, Professor McVie had a long career in academic research, followed in 1989 by becoming Director General of the United Kingdom’s Cancer Research Campaign (CRC). Under Professor McVie’s leadership at CRC, 60 new anticancer drugs were taken from the laboratory into clinical trials. Professor McVie died on January 20, 2021. He was 76.
Shaky Start in School
Professor McVie was born on January 13, 1945, in Scotland into a middle-class family that put high precedence on education. Professor McVie would become the leading point person in the United Kingdom in developing a more robust cancer clinical trial system, and, not withstanding, the unofficial chief advocate for patients with cancer in the United Kingdom, his road to those career high points began shakily. He went to school in Edinburgh, originally planning to follow in his father’s footsteps into a prominent career in commercial law. However, during school, his performance in subjects needed for a path into law was subpar, so, instead, given his better grades in science, he decided to become a general practitioner and went to study medicine at The University of Edinburgh.
Gordon McVie, BSc (Hons), MBChB, MD, FRCP, FRCPEd, FRCPS (Glas), FMedSci, DSc
A distressing close family experience also edified Professor McVie’s decision to drop law for medicine. His beloved aunt developed ovarian cancer and opted to go on a phase I clinical trial of mustine, despite the side effects of nausea and vomiting. “The agent did actually improve her overall survival and quality of life, which influenced my decision to pursue a career in medicine,” said Professor McVie during an interview.
Despite his enthusiasm for medicine, Professor McVie continued an unimpressive academic performance, failing two of three subjects in his first year. Discouraged by his inability to excel, Professor McVie contemplated dropping out of medical school. However, an empathetic pathology professor saw untapped potential in the disconsolate student and took a risk, mentoring Professor McVie in the art of learning.
Professor McVie soon discovered the pleasure hidden in journals such as The Lancet and the BMJ, which resulted in his first real academic project: writing a 3,000-word essay on some aspect of inflammation or autoimmunity. “I suddenly started enjoying school, realizing I could really do this. I became an academic. I published a paper at the end of that year in the British Journal of Clinical Pathology, and it has to be one of my most cited papers. There were 750 requests for abstracts and reprints; it was amazing,” he said.
Turning Tragedy Into Dedication
Professor McVie would later thank the belief and mentorship of his pathology professor for igniting his latent potential that accelerated his career. In 1971, Professor McVie earned his degrees in science and medicine from The University of Edinburgh and became a lecturer in therapeutics and materia medica.
From there, he became one of the United Kingdom’s young doctors to watch, catching the admiration of nationally recognized Professor Gordon Hamilton Fairley at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, then the only medical oncologist in the United Kingdom. Professor Fairley arranged for Professor McVie to visit the United States and rotate through multiple hospitals over several months, an experience, including a hematology program at the National Cancer Institute, that Professor McVie recalled as “career-shaping.”
However, just as Professor McVie’s path into oncology was beginning, Professor Fairley was inadvertently killed in an IRA bombing. The tragic loss of his valued mentor and friend was so devastating, Professor McVie confided that it could have ended his career. Instead, “it inspired me to greater heights of achievement.”
A Young Oncologist Takes on a Big Challenge
A crucial need arose to set up an oncology system in West Scotland, an area with a population of 2.5 million. Professor McVie was the only Scot vigorously trained in medical oncology, so he was recruited. At 31, he became the first consultant in medical oncology in Scotland. It was an enormous obligation that left him little time for research, which was his true calling. During this period, Professor McVie wrote several important project grant applications, as he labored long days into the night in the clinic.
Professor McVie eventually concluded that to take his next career step and concentrate on new drug development, as well as increase his knowledge of pharmacology and pharmacokinetics, he would relocate to an institution that offered him a research position. To that end, an opportunity arose in the shape of a 3-month sabbatical at the Netherlands Cancer Institute in Amsterdam. It proved so stimulating to his research goals that he stayed there 9 years. He had a 12-bed unit on the ward that was dedicated to phase I clinical trials. His work proved so good that he was given a laboratory to continue working in clinical pharmacology and drug discovery. These years were productive, and Professor McVie became Clinical Research Director at the Institute. He remained there until he was offered the position of Scientific Director at CRC, back in London, and, in April 1996, of Director General.
A Passionate Advocate
Professor McVie’s career would become a stirring blend of science, advocacy, and politics, all for the good of furthering cancer research and care. His academic and public efforts markedly increased awareness and access to clinical trials for patients with cancer in the United Kingdom.
“We have only got something like 3% of our patients with cancer in clinical trials, and that is a national disgrace. If I can do anything to persuade people that they would get better cancer treatment if they were in a clinical trial, then I am doing them a service,” Professor McVie said, an often-repeated exhortation.
Never one to fully retire, Professor McVie served as a consultant for several cancer-related ventures and partnered with the noted Italian oncologist, Umberto Veronesi, MD, for an online journal called Cancer Intelligence. In 2016, he joined the Italian Institute of Molecular Oncology, where he remained active until shortly before his death.
On his profile on LinkedIn, he left his own legacy:
“Forty years in cancer clinical research and people still dying in their thousands. I’d like a better epitaph than that so I’m still following my curiosity genotype, arranging marriages between lab and clinical scientists.”