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Biographical entry Orr, Wilbert McNeill (1930 - 2008)

MRCS and FRCS 1960; BA Dublin 1951; MB BCh BAO Dublin 1954; ChM Manchester 1967; FRCS Edinburgh 1960.

3 April 1930
Trim, County Meath, Ireland
30 June 2008
General surgeon and Transplant surgeon


Wilbert McNeill Orr, known as ‘Willie’, was a renal transplant researcher and surgeon, and later a general surgeon in Manchester. He was born on 3 April 1930 in Trim, County Meath, Ireland, the son of David Orr, a bank manager, and Wilamena McNeill, a teacher. He attended Sligo Grammar School and entered Trinity College, Dublin, for his medical studies. In addition to his scholastic work, he became an enthusiastic oarsman and was captain of the senior eight rowing team that came third in the head of the river race at Putney and made the final of the Ladies’ Plate at Henley. In the last year of his studies he was a demonstrator in physiology at Trinity College Dublin Medical School and took a house physician’s post at Steeven’s Hospital, Dublin, under the watchful eye of P B B Gatenby.

Wilbert Orr then went to the England for a house surgeon post, working at the Birmingham Accident Centre, before undertaking his first senior house officer post at the Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre in Oxford in 1956. Deciding on a surgical career, he studied for the primary FRCS at the College on the basic sciences course. He passed this examination, before becoming senior house officer to Sir Stanford Cade at the Westminster Hospital, London. Going further north to gain more experience, he undertook a senior house officer post at the Manchester Royal Infirmary (MRI) and showed his teaching skills shortly afterwards as tutor in surgery at the MRI.

During two years’ of National Service in the RAMC, he was a junior specialist in surgery with the rank of captain, serving with the Cameroon Force in West Africa.

Returning as tutor in clinical surgery at the Manchester Royal Infirmary, Willie spent a year in this post in 1962, before becoming assistant lecturer. An early joint publication with Kenneth Bloor was a case report on ‘haemorrhage from ileal varices due to portal hypertension’: this was the forerunner of many joint papers and lectures over the years.

In 1964 he was research fellow at the Paterson Laboratories of the Christie Hospital and Holt Radium Institute, the first of many academic posts with a research interest in surgery.

Senior registrar training was undertaken at a combined post at the Postgraduate Medical School, Hammersmith Hospital, London, with Ralph Shackman, before he returned to Manchester as a lecturer in surgery. Some research work on renal function with Geoffrey Chisholm, then in London, led to other publications, as did his later stay in Manchester with Athol G Riddell on such diverse subjects as ‘the management of arterial emboli’ and ‘chemotherapy in the treatment of cancer’. Riddell was later translated to the chair in Bristol.

During this lectureship he worked in the research laboratories of the Harvard Medical School under Francis D Moore, Moseley professor of surgery and surgeon-in-chief at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston. Willie became involved in the dog liver transplantation work, or the ‘Sputnik’ programme, as did so many other research fellows. Some of this work was later submitted for the degree of master of surgery at the University of Manchester. He also worked with Joseph E Murray, who in 1990 received a Nobel prize for his pioneering renal transplantation work. Some joint publications and lectures followed on the survival of both liver and kidney transplants from this one year stay in the USA.

Returning to Manchester as lecturer in surgery with honorary consultant status in 1967, he was promoted to senior lecturer and became director of the renal transplantation unit. He was a founder member of the British Transplantation Society and, from 1969 to 1985, an elected non-professorial member of Senate, sub-dean of clinical studies at the University of Manchester and for 10 years Royal College of Surgeons of England tutor at the Manchester Royal Infirmary.

His last 16 years, from 1974 until retirement in 1990, were spent as a consultant in general surgery, where he was happy to display the diverse range of ‘specialties’ in which he had been trained. He remained a member of the Vascular Society, the Surgical Research Society and the British Society for Immunology. As a fellow of the Association of Surgeons of Great Britain and Ireland he served on its council.

Wilbert McNeill Orr married Ann Fullerton, a physiotherapist, in 1955. They had five children: Jane became a nurse, Michael an orthopaedic surgeon and a fellow of the College, Anthony a general practitioner, Robert an actor and Susan a speech therapist. Willie Orr maintained a balanced lifestyle with outside interests in fly fishing, clock making and gardening. He died on 30 June 2008.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Information from Michael Orr and Nigel Keddie].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England