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Biographical entry McAdam, Sir Ian William James (1917 - 1999)

Kt 1966; OBE 1957; MRCS and FRCS 1966; MB ChB Edinburgh; FRCS Edinburgh.

4 March 1999
General surgeon


A former Professor of Surgery at Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda, Sir Ian McAdam played a leading part in establishing the high reputation of the Makerere Medical School. He was born in the small town of Parys, South Africa, near the Rhodesian border, the son of W J McAdam, a mining engineer, and Alice Culverwell. He was educated at Plumtree School in Southern Rhodesia, and then went on to Cambridge University. He trained as a surgeon with James Learmonth in Edinburgh. Missing Africa, he applied for a post at Mulago Hospital, Kampala, and at Makerere University. Under his leadership Makerere flourished in a 'golden age' of service, teaching and research.

An inspired teacher, he was able to impart his practical knowledge and enthusiasm to all about him - his assistants and trainees, anaesthetists and nursing staff, and a wide variety of friends and acquaintances as well. He was a 'doer' - a dynamic man of ideas, an organiser of people, service and research. He understood the needs of students and put his own fire into their hearts. His daily staff meetings and 'hands-on' lectures, ward rounds and operating sessions were memorable. The first generation of African surgeons were trained in his department and their quality was such that the MMed degree, which he had a leading role in establishing, was recognised by the Royal Colleges.

He was a prime mover in establishing the poliomyelitis treatment centre at Makerere, the cancer institute and the blood transfusion service, to name a few of his contributions. Sir Ian was also a founder member of the East African Society of Surgeons and became its President.

One evening, responding to an urgent telephone call saying an attempt had been made on the life of President Obote, he dashed to the hospital, quickly followed by his wife Pamela, carrying his glasses, which he had left behind. She burst through the excited Army sentries at the hospital gate, ran to the operating theatre and presented his glasses through the theatre doorway then joined the anxious friends waiting outside. A sudden crash in the theatre startled the watchers who suspected a coup. However, the noise was due to a timorous nurse dropping a tray full of instruments on the floor. McAdam found that the President's head wound was not serious, but he remained cool and kept his patient on a respirator until calm was re-established.

In 1972, McAdam was expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin, because he was known to have given shelter to his colleagues and helped others escape. He had to leave his lovely thatched cottage on Mkinde Hill, always a haven of hospitality to his many friends. After his expulsion (without a pension), he spent time in Britain and was then appointed to the National Cancer Institute in Washington for a year. He then returned to South Africa and, with the unwavering support of his wife, he set up a second career as a surgeon at Knysna at Plettenberg Bay.

He married twice. In 1939 he married Hrothgarde Gibson, and they had two daughters, Elsbeth (a family psychiatrist) and Roslyn (a physiotherapist), and a son, Keith, Professor of Tropical Medicine in London and director of the medical research unit in Gambia. The marriage was dissolved in 1961 and in 1967 he married Pamela, the sister of Sir Peter Medawar, the Nobel prize winner. With Pamela he retired to Oxfordshire in 1992. He died on 4 March 1999.

Sources used to compile this entry: [BMJ 1999 318 1216, with portrait; Information from Mr Rowan Nicks].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England