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Biographical entry Venn, Graham Erskine (1954 - 2013)

MB BS London 1977; FRCS Edin 1981; FRCS 1982; FICS 1990; MS 1991; FETCS 1998.

22 March 1954
29 September 2013
Cardiac surgeon and Cardiothoracic surgeon


Graham Venn was a consultant cardiac surgeon at Guy's and St Thomas' NHS Foundation Trust and, for the last decade of his life, at the centre of British cardiac surgery. He was part of all aspects of the discipline, from being passionate about training junior surgeons, to overseeing cardiac surgical research at St Thomas' Hospital, to being influential in the running and governance of the Society for Cardiothoracic Surgery (SCTS), to his work linked with the Royal College of Surgeons and, finally, to his ensuring fair pay and contractual obligations for newly-appointed young consultants. Graham touched the lives of the cardiac surgical world in a way that few have. His wisdom, foresight and passion were remarkable from a young age.

Graham Erskine Venn was born in Kent on 22 March 1954. He was educated at Dulwich College, London and went on to study medicine at the Middlesex Hospital Medical School from 1972 to 1977. Graham knew he wanted to be a heart surgeon as a student and one of his first posts after qualification was as houseman to the illustrious surgeons Jack Belcher, Marvin Sturridge and Donald Ross (the surgeon who performed the first UK heart transplant). Graham then went on to train under some of the greatest names in British cardiac surgery - Matt Paneth, Chris Lincoln, Stewart Lennox and Magdi Yacoub. The final part of his training was at the Hôpital Broussais in Paris, working with the father of heart valve repair, Alain Carpentier.

During this period, Graham accumulated numerous prizes and distinctions, became a fellow of both the Royal Colleges of Surgeons of England and of Edinburgh, and went on to become a Hunterian professor of surgery at the RCS in 1989.

Graham was appointed to the staff at St Thomas' Hospital in July 1989, where he quickly adopted a senior management as well as a clinical role, overseeing the difficult mergers of the Brook cardiac unit and later the unification of Guy's and St Thomas' cardiac services to form part of the largest UK trust hospital.

He later became a member of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London and was made a freeman of the City of London in 2003.

Within the Society for Cardiothoracic Surgery, Graham was influential for 20 years, from being an almost permanent member of the executive committee to chairing various society committees, such as the professional standards committee and the blood-borne infections panel. Latterly, Graham was a trustee and director of SCTS.

In addition, Graham worked tirelessly through both the Society and the RCS to raise the standards of the profession, including leading on job planning (to ensure a fair deal for newly-appointed consultants) and acting as specialty adviser. Graham was also central to the development of the 'early response' initiative, a mechanism whereby the Society and RCS could rapidly respond to adverse surgical outcomes/performance by parachuting in a team. Graham himself formed part of the rapid response team, undertaking several exhausting reviews.

Graham was appointed surgeon to the British Army in 1990, an honorary appointment whereby he initially looked after cardiac surgical issues for the entire Army and latterly provided advice on the management of chest trauma in overseas battle zones.

Graham was a passionate trainer of young surgeons and his unassuming Facebook page was full of praise from his trainees. His final legacy was that the last three cardiac surgeons appointed to St Thomas' had been inspired by training under Graham. Two of them went on to train internationally, but all three wanted to come back to St Thomas' because of Graham's influence.

Finally, Graham was an outstanding surgeon who pushed for increasing specialisation in cardiac surgery. His cardiac surgical results in general were outstanding, but particularly on mitral valve reconstructive surgery - a complex branch of cardiac surgery at which Graham excelled. He was very passionate about surgery and his patients. On one occasion Graham could not operate until another patient had left the ITU to move to another hospital, thereby vacating a post-operative bed. Such was the slowness of the pace, it appeared that Graham's patient would be cancelled that day. Graham was having none of it, and he went and found himself an old ambulance used for 'iron-lung' patients. He commandeered it and drove it to the main ITU himself. He was about to escort and drive the discharge patient himself, when the medical hierarchy gained control of the situation and suggested that an uninsured doctor driving a massive ambulance unescorted through the streets of London might not be in the patient's or Graham's best interests.

Sadly, as Graham's health failed he had to give up surgery, but he was not one to sit at home! He soon became medical director of the UK for HCA International, a private healthcare company, a post he relished as he sought constantly to raise medical standards.

Graham died of cancer on 29 September 2013. He was 59. He was survived by his widow Liz and her son Joe, his sons James and Jonathan, and his grandson Ryan.

Christopher Young

Sources used to compile this entry: [The Times 9 January 2014; Graham Venn website - accessed 27 November 2015].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England