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Biographical entry Ommaya, Ayub Khan (1930 - 2008)

MD Lahore 1953; MA Oxford 1956; FRCS 1960; Hon DSc Tulane 1981; FACS.

14 April 1930
Mian Chanu, Punjab, India
11 July 2008
Islamabad, Pakistan


Ayub Khan Ommaya was an internationally-known expert on brain injury and the inventor of the Ommaya reservoir, which is used to administer chemotherapy to the site of brain tumours. He was born in Mian Chanuu, in what was then British India, on 14 April 1930, the youngest son of Nadir Khan, of the British Indian Calvary, and his wife Ida, who was a French Catholic. Ommaya studied at Gordon College, Rawalpindi, and then at King Edward Medical College in Lahore. While at medical school he won the Harper Nelson gold medal for outstanding academic achievement. He was also a champion debater, boxer and swimmer. After qualifying, he was awarded a Rhodes scholarship to study at Balliol College, Oxford. At Oxford he developed his interest in mechanisms of brain injury and worked with the distinguished American neurosurgeon Joe Pennybacker. He also rowed for Balliol.

He then moved to the United States and began working as a researcher and clinician at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, where he eventually became chief of neurosurgery. From 1980 he was a clinical professor at George Washington University. He was also chief medical adviser to the US Department of Transportation (from 1980 to 1985).

Early in his career at the National Institute he developed the first coma scale, although it was never used beyond the Institute. He also invented the Ommaya reservoir, a silicone dome with a catheter designed to run via a small hole in the skull into the brain, meaning chemotherapy could be effectively directed straight into the site of brain tumours. The reservoir is now used across the world.

Ommaya published more than 150 articles, chapters and books. He developed the centripetal theory of traumatic brain injury, which allowed researchers to model how brains are affected by force. He also worked with Sir Godfrey Hounsfield on early computed tomography (CT) scanning, determining the spatial resolution of the scanner, effectively leading the way to its use in stereotactic surgery.

With Congressman William Lehman, chair of the House Appropriations Committee responsible for the Department of Transportation, he developed the US Centers for Disease Control's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, focusing on traumatic brain injury.

Outside medicine, he was known as having a fine operatic voice, and often sang before and after surgery.

He was married three times. His first two marriages, to Parvaneh Modaber and Wendy Preece, ended in divorce. He retired from George Washington University in 2003, and he and his third wife, Ghazala, returned to Pakistan. He died on 11 July 2008 in Islamabad of complications of Alzheimer's disease. He was 78. He was survived by Ghazala, his three children from his second marriage (David, Alexander and Shana), his three children from his third marriage (Asha, Iman and Sinan) and five grandchildren.

Sarah Gillam

Sources used to compile this entry: [The Washington Post 14 July 2008; The Lancet 2008 372 (9649) 1540; Wikipedia Ayub K Ommaya - accessed 20 November 2014].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England