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Biographical entry Woodruff, Sir Michael Francis Addison (1911 - 2001)

Kt 1969; FRS 1968; MRCS and FRCS 1947; BSc Melbourne 1932; MB BS 1937; MD 1940; MS 1941; DSc 1962.

3 April 1911
10 March 2001
Transplant surgeon


Michael Woodruff was a pioneering surgeon and researcher in the specialty of transplantation. He was born in Mill Hill, London, on 3 April 1911, where his father, Harold Addison Woodruff, was the Professor of Veterinary Medicine at the Royal Veterinary College. His mother was Margaret Ada née Cooper. He was two years old when his father was appointed to the directorship of the veterinary institute at the University of Melbourne. Two years later, his father went off to the first world war, and the family went back to London, remaining there until 1917. In 1923, while his father was on sabbatical leave at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, Michael and his brother went to school in Taunton for a year, returning to complete his education in Melbourne at Wesley College, riding on horseback each morning to school with his brother.

He won a senior government scholarship to the University of Melbourne, where he studied electrical engineering, gaining his degree in 1932 with first class honours. He was an accomplished organist and played in the chapel at Queen's College, Melbourne, when he was resident there. At the same time as studying electrical engineering, he also took the first two years of an honours mathematics course, where he was tutored by Harrie (later Sir Harrie) Massie. He would subsequently explain that mathematics gave him something of the same pleasure as music.

By now his father had become Professor of Bacteriology and his younger brother was a medical student, so Woodruff decided to be a doctor. He went on to graduate MB BS with honours in 1937, along with the Ryan gold medal of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons and the Beaney prize in surgery. As was then possible, he passed the primary FRCS as a student.

After being a house surgeon at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, he decided to enlist and, as it was by then not possible to take the final FRCS, he took leave to take the master of surgery degree in Melbourne in 1941, before being posted to the 10th Australian Army General Hospital in Malacca. With the swift Japanese advance down the Malayan peninsula, Woodruff found himself in Singapore, where he was interned in Changi, along with 50,000 other British and Australian troops, including Julian Taylor and Sir Edward ('Weary') Dunlop. He realised that nutritional deficiency was going to be a major problem facing the prisoners and developed means of supplementing the diet with essential ingredients and vitamins - work which was written up at the end of the war with Dean Abbott Smith, but only published by the MRC in 1951 as Deficiency diseases in Japanese prison camps (London, Medical Council Special Report Series, no 274). It was by chance in Changi that he came across a textbook on abdominal surgery that mentioned that skin grafts from unrelated individuals were rejected by the recipient, a topic then being studied by Peter Medawar.

After the war, Woodruff returned to Melbourne to continue his surgical training, and in 1946 met and married Hazel Ashby, a young science graduate from the University of Adelaide. Having applied unsuccessfully for a post at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, he decided to go to London to complete his FRCS, and to his surprise was at once appointed to the post of surgical tutor at Sheffield University. His interest in the rejection of skin grafts remained alive, and he visited Medawar, then Professor of Zoology in Birmingham. Meanwhile, he passed his FRCS, one of his examiners being a former chief medical officer in Changi, Colonel Julian Taylor.

In 1948, he moved to Aberdeen to become senior lecturer and honorary consultant surgeon. There he tried (unsuccessfully) to produce tolerance to skin grafts in utero in rats, though Medawar later succeeding in doing this in mice. In 1953, he accepted the Chair of Surgery at the University of Otago in New Zealand. There his research continued to be very productive: he described runt disease, the use of the anterior chamber of the eye as an immunologically privileged site for foreign grafts, and the use of frozen skin banks in the management of burns.

In 1957, he applied for the vacant Chair of Surgery at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary and was accepted without interview. There for the next two decades he built up an outstanding department of surgical science, established the first transplant unit in the United Kingdom, and carried out the first successful kidney transplant between identical twins in 1960. The MRC funded a research group under Woodruff's direction, and the Nuffield Foundation built him a transplant unit, specially designed to protect patients from cross infection while their immune system was suppressed.

Michael Woodruff received many honours. He was elected FRS in 1968 for his scientific achievements. He was knighted in 1969 for services to medicine, and in 1970 he received the St Peter's medal of the British Association of Urological Surgeons. He was President of the Transplantation Society from 1972 to 1974.

He died on 10 March 2001. He left a widow, Hazel, two sons and one daughter.

Sources used to compile this entry: [The Independent 31 March 2001, with portrait].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England