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Biographical entry Moossa, Abdool Rahim (1939 - 2013)

BSc Liverpool 1962; MB ChB 1965; FRCS 1970; FRCS Edin 1970; FACS 1976; Hon MD 1990.

10 October 1939
Port Louis, Mauritius
17 July 2013
General surgeon and Hepato-pancreato-biliary surgeon


Abdool Rahim Moossa, known as 'Babs', was chairman of the department of surgery at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). He called his approach the 'triple threat', combining first rate surgery with advanced education, training and research, not surprisingly taking USCD onto the international stage as a world class surgery centre.

Born in 1939 in Port Louis, Mauritius, his father, Yacoob, was a businessman and his mother, Maude, had her hands full raising Babs and his two brothers and four sisters. Mauritius, west of Madagascar in the south Indian Ocean, was originally discovered by Arabs before being visited by the Portuguese in 1507, then being successively colonised by the Dutch, French and then the British from 1810 until independence in 1968. At the age of six Babs was fortunate to be sent to study at the College du Saint Esprit, Paris. He stayed until 1953, when he returned to Mauritius to complete his education at the Royal College, Curepipe. This helps to explain his strong but charming French accent, his Arabic name and yet his fervent Britishness. He studied medicine in Liverpool, qualifying in 1965. He stayed in the city for his postgraduate training, becoming a senior surgical registrar in 1970. He became immersed in British values, which no doubt helped to progress his career across the Atlantic and he prided himself on remaining a British citizen, rather than becoming an American national.

In 1972 he obtained a clinical fellowship in surgical oncology at the Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore with David Bernt Skinner, who had joined the faculty in 1968 and had a meteoric career. In 1972 Skinner became the Dallas B Phemister professor and chairman of the department of surgery at the University of Chicago at the age of only 37. A year later, Babs Moossa made the wise decision to follow his mentor. David Skinner had been tasked with restoring the academic and clinical stature of the university's surgery programme. There is no doubt this was very valuable experience for the young Moossa for his future tasks at UCSD. Babs progressed from consultant surgeon and assistant professor to full professor and chief of general surgical services from 1977 and director of surgical research in 1978 before his move to UCSD in 1983.

Babs is distinguished as putting pancreas surgery as a specialty on the map and he was meticulously clinically focused. He was one of the very first to look at early diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. His first major competitive grant in 1974 was from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to 'develop methods for the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer'. A further NIH grant in 1978 was to 'improve methods of imaging the pancreas'. One of my fondest memories of Babs was seeing him debating in full flight at surgical congresses, not least with his colleague and superior George Block. Babs was clearly the new kid on the block, whereas George was, well, the old kid on the block. Their differences were accentuated by the charming Franco-English of Babs and the gruffness of George (extreme, even for a Chicagoan), who one felt at times was still fighting in Korea. George could never quite see that log-rank analysis of Kaplan-Meier survival curves was far more 'real' and accurate than 'actual' crude survival estimates.

Babs always worked extremely hard and, despite becoming the associate dean and special counsel to the vice chancellor for health sciences and director of tertiary and quaternary services from 2003, he was renowned for always being available for his patients and was generous to the wider community.

Babs Moossa must take particular credit for demonstrating that pancreatectomy for cancer was a practical way forward at a time when a series of poor results from non-specialised centres was showing unacceptably high mortality rates. He wrote a number of books, but the one that had a huge impact was a monograph on pancreatic cancer way ahead of its time and still one of the best expositions of pancreatic anatomy ever written (Tumours of the pancreas. Williams and Wilkins, Baltimore, Maryland, 1980).

As part of the UCSD hearts and scholars programme, he established the AR Moossa scholarship for medical students. The AR Moossa service is one of the designated surgical services at the UCSD Veterans Administration Hospital. There is an AR Moossa named lab at the Anti-Cancer Research Foundation, San Diego, and an annual AR Moossa memorial lecture in Kuwait.

Babs achieved many international honours and distinctions, but maintained his strong links with the UK, being awarded an honorary doctorate in medicine by the University of Liverpool in 1990. He was a special guest of the North West Surgical Society in 2005.

He had a great love for British motor cars and also for horse racing. One of his syndicate horses, Heritage, won the King George V Handicap Royal Ascot race in 1997, and all three of his horses regularly seen at Del Mar Racetrack, San Diego, have proven to be winners (Moossa's Girl, Crowning Moossa and Babs Moossa). There are two race cups at the Mauritius racetrack named Moossa, one after his father and, since 2014, one named after him.

Babs died on 17 July 2013, aged 73. He was survived by his wife Denise 'Dee' (née Willoughby), whom he married in Liverpool in 1973, and their four children - Pierre Willoughby, Noel Sebastien, Claude Elisabeth and Valentine Maud.

John P Neoptolemos

Sources used to compile this entry: [Personal knowledge; UCSD websites; Dee Moossa; Mike Scott; Jag Dhorajiwala; Abe Fingerhut; Alfred Cuschieri; Willie Lloyd-Jones; Collin Mackie].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England