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Biographical entry Dempster, William James (1918 - 2008)

MRCS and FRCS 1961; LRFPS Glasgow 1941; FRCS Edinburgh 1948; LRCP 1961; LRCP Edinburgh; LRCS Edinburgh.

15 March 1918
Ibo, Mozambique
27 July 2008
Transplant surgeon


William James Dempster, known as ‘Jim’, was a transplant researcher and surgeon at St Mary’s Hospital, London. He was born on the island of Ibo, north of Madagascar, on 15 March 1918, although his birth was not registered until 28 April and his birth certificate was not issued until 9 August of that year. He had malaria in infancy, but made a complete recovery. Such an exotic entry into the world is in keeping with his colourful personality and career, and it demands a word of explanation. His father, James, had been raising cattle in Portuguese East Africa, but the enterprise was defeated by the tsetse fly. Sadly, Jim’s father died and his mother, Jessie, brought her young family back to Edinburgh some time after August 1919. Jim went to George Heriot’s School, shining at both work and play. At rugby he was in the school first XV for three seasons as a fly-half, and played for the first XI at cricket.

He won a place to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh, where a contemporary was Sheila Sherlock (later a professor and a dame). The pair of them were prominent tennis players at the university. On qualification he spent a short time as a locum GP, before joining the RAF, serving in India and Burma.

On demobilisation in 1946, like many contemporaries, he had difficulty finding a job which would lead on to further training. Meeting Sheila Sherlock again, she suggested he try the Postgraduate Hospital, Hammersmith. He followed her advice and was accepted into Ian Aird’s surgical unit. With his own wry humour, he described the task allotted to him as “the worst job in the hospital”. He was to undertake research into the problem of organ transplantation, working at the Buckston Browne Farm of the Royal College of Surgeons with Sir Arthur Keith, the famous anatomist and anthropologist of Piltdown man fame.

His contribution to the nature of the rejection reaction in canine renal allografts can rightly be called unique. He published more than a 100 reviews and papers on the subject between 1951 and 1957, gaining him worldwide recognition as a pioneer. His macro- and microscopic observations confirmed that rejection was an example of immune response, mediated by serum antibodies.

He travelled widely and enjoyed the company of fellow pioneers of transplantation, particularly that of Georges Mathé of Paris, with whom he shared esteem for Milan Hasek of Prague, as the first to demonstrate induced tolerance, so leading to the understanding that graft rejection was an immunological reaction. Jim and his colleagues were also the first to show that not only delayed type hypersensitivity reactions but also the response to skin allografts could be suppressed in animals by whole-body x-irradiation. He also anticipated the concept of graft-versus-host responses.

Asked if his department was keen to develop the clinical application of transplantation, he replied that Ian Aird’s enthusiasm was for research. Jim’s participation in clinical work was at St Mary’s Hospital, where he joined Charles Rob in a renal transplant in 1956, generally regarded as the first in the UK. Jim’s typically outspoken comments on the procedure were that it was a disaster, performed inappropriately on a patient with acute renal failure. However, it had the virtue of starting an interest in transplantation at St Mary’s Hospital, which remains a leader in the field. Later in the early 1960s, he cooperated with Shackman in the earliest transplants conducted in his department. It has been commented that Jim’s early retirement from his professional field was regrettable. At that time he was a reader at the University of London. It would appear that, like many another in the academic field, he was discouraged by what he felt to be his prospects of advancement.

He retired to his home in Twickenham. His marriage had been a romantic affair. Cherry Clark was a ballet dancer with several distinguished companies, and Jim had seen her dance in London. Cherry suffered an injury and, whilst recovering took a job as a radiotherapy nurse at the Hammersmith. They met there and subsequently enjoyed a very happy marriage. In retirement Jim lost none of his enthusiasm, which he now devoted to painting and gardening, specialising in the propagation of fuchsias. A continuing interest was the defence of John Hunter and the promotion of a little-known Scot, Patrick Matthew, as one of the rightful pioneers of evolutionary theory.

In 1988 the family moved to Lockerley near Romsey in Hampshire. Cherry sadly died in 2005. Afterwards Jim was cared for by his daughter Soula, who lived nearby. He leaves two sons and a daughter, all them well-versed, from meal-time conversation, in the achievements of Hunter and Matthew. He died on 27 July 2008.

John Hopewell

The Royal College of Surgeons of England