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Biographical entry Levy, Laurence Fraser (1921 - 2007)

MRCS 1945; FRCS 1955; MB BS London 1948; MSc New York 1954; LRCP 1945; FRCS Edin 1982; FACS.

16 November 1921
London, UK
29 May 2007


Laurence Levy was a pioneering neurosurgeon in Zimbabwe. He was born on 16 November 1921 in London, the son of Hyman Levy, professor of mathematics at Imperial College, and Marion Aitken née Levy, the daughter of a schoolmaster. He was educated at King's School, Wimbledon, and, when his family moved to Hampshire, at Peter Symonds School, Winchester. He qualified in medicine from University College Hospital in 1945, did a house job at the Royal National Hospital for Chest Diseases in Ventnor, and was a house physician and casualty officer at Worthing Hospital

His National Service was in the RAF as a flight lieutenant, stationed at Lübeck, where he became involved in the care of overworked pilots on the Berlin airlift. He also became a glider pilot instructor.

He then left for North America to enlarge his experience, becoming a demonstrator in anatomy at the University of Toronto in 1950. By 1954, he was a resident in neurosurgery at New York University Hospital and, in 1955, was a senior resident in neurosurgery at Bellevue Hospital, New York. In 1956, as a Dazian fellow, he had an attachment in neurosurgery at the London Hospital. The neurosurgeons whom he considered had influenced him were Wilder Penfield of Montreal and Thomas Hoen of New York University.

Unable to find a post in the NHS in Britain at the time, he took a position as a ship's surgeon on a boat to China. Although he enquired about positions as a neurosurgeon in countries visited on the way, he was not satisfied with what was offered and decided upon Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). In 1956, he was appointed as a consultant neurosurgeon to the Salisbury group of hospitals, where he was said to be the only neurosurgeon between Johannesburg and Cairo. There he spent his professional life, being appointed professor of neurosurgery in 1972.

In Zimbabwe, his difficulty was how to provide, with limited resources, good treatment for his patients. The Harare shunt, a cheap but effective device he developed, was a solution to one aspect of the problem. His practice involved much flying, a major interest from his RAF days.

Levy published more than 80 articles, starting with an extensive review of spinal and cerebral astrocytomas in the Journal of Neurosurgery in 1956, written from the Montreal Neurological Institute with Arthur Elvidge (J Neurosurg. 1956 Sep;13[5]:413-43). Later publications, mainly in the Central African Medical Journal, reflected the wide range of neurological conditions with which he had to cope, including tuberculoma and abscess of the brain, peripheral nerve injuries, epilepsy and bilharzia, among others.

He was a vocal opponent of apartheid, supported independence for Zimbabwe, and was friends with key figures in the independence movement. Later, he was concerned with the loss of locally trained doctors from the Third World to advanced countries and, in an article in the British Medical Journal in 2003, made the suggestion that it would be better for countries, such as, presumably, Zimbabwe, to produce graduates whose qualifications were not recognised abroad (BMJ 2003 327 170).

He received a medal of honour from the World Federation of Neurosurgical Societies for outstanding contributions to neurosurgery in the Third World.

His wife, whom he married in 1966, Lorraine, was a professor of medicine. They had two sons. Laurence Levy died of a stroke on 29 May 2007.

T T King

Sources used to compile this entry: [BMJ 2007 335 404; private information].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England