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Biographical entry Ross, Donald Nixon (1922 - 2014)

BSc MB ChB Cape Town 1946; FRCS 1949; FACC 1973; FACS 1976; Hon DSc CNAA 1982; Hon FRCSI 1984; Hon FRCS Thailand 1987; Hon FRSocMed 1996.

4 October 1922
Kimberly, South Africa
7 July 2014
Thoracic surgeon


Donald Ross was one of the foremost British cardiac surgeons of his generation and was renowned for his innovations, superlative surgical technique and clinical acumen. He was also recognised as a great mentor for the many young surgeons who trained under him.

He was born on 4 October 1922 in Kimberley, South Africa, of Scottish parents and studied medicine at the University of Cape Town, graduating with first class honours and the university gold medal. While there he was a direct contemporary of Christiaan Barnard and when Barnard went to Minneapolis for his surgical training, Donald Ross went to Britain, where he honed his surgical skills under Ronald Belsey in Bristol. However, his important move was to Guy's Hospital in 1953, where he became a senior registrar to Sir Russell (later Lord) Brock, who was one of the pioneers of British cardiac surgery. Ross flourished under his influence and in 1958 was appointed Brock's consultant colleague, so that the two men, each with very different skills, were able to establish the cardiothoracic unit at Guy's as one of the best in the country.

With the advent of open heart surgery, Ross was soon expanding his interest and research into many aspects of the rapidly developing specialty, both in paediatrics and adult surgery. He was largely responsible for the Guy's-Ross heart-lung machine and had an abiding interest in the use of biological tissue rather than mechanical substitutes for replacing heart valves. In 1962 he was the first to use a homograft for replacement of the aortic valve. Later he expanded this concept, developing what became known as the 'Ross procedure', where the diseased aortic valve was replaced with the patient's own pulmonary valve, after which a homograft was placed in the pulmonary position. This was a particularly attractive option for young children as the re-implanted valve was shown to grow with the patient.

In 1963 he was encouraged to split his practice between Guy's and the National Heart Hospital, where he joined Sir Thomas Sellors, another distinguished pioneer of cardiac surgery. It was there in May 1968 that he performed Britain's first heart transplant, Barnard having done the world's first in Cape Town six months earlier. The patient lived for 45 days and when two more case in 1968 and 1969 were unsuccessful, largely because the control of immunological rejection was imperfectly understood, a moratorium was placed on further attempts at heart transplants in the UK. This lasted for 10 years until the programme at Papworth Hospital was started.

Donald Ross continued with an immensely arduous practice at both Guy's and the Heart Hospital and the latter became a Mecca for visiting surgeons to watch the master at work. In addition to his busy schedule at home, he travelled widely abroad to lecture and to operate and he had the distinction of introducing open heart surgery to India and Egypt. His following became such that surgeons who had trained under him or had been influenced by him established the Donald Ross Surgical Society. He was also in great demand at surgical meetings throughout the world and was honoured by many international colleges and surgical societies. Sadly and somewhat inexplicably, he was never awarded a British honour, which many felt was his due.

His interests outside surgery included riding and breeding Arabian horses. With his first wife, Dorothy, he had a daughter, Janet, who is a consultant dermatologist. His second wife, Barbara, was his devoted and cheerful companion for the last 14 years of his long life. He died on 7 July 2014, aged 91.

Sir Terence English

Sources used to compile this entry: [ The Telegraph 23 July 2014; The Lancet 2014 384 (9943) 576].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England