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Oration for Sir Charles George by Dr Stephen Gurman

On the occasion of being awarded Doctor of Science summer 2007

Sir Charles George has had a distinguished career in medical education and in public health, mostly at the Medical School of the University of Southampton. As Medical Director of the British Heart Foundation he not only had oversight of its research programme but also campaigned strongly for measures which would improve the health of the nation.

Sir Charles was born in Birmingham and educated at Oundle School in Northamptonshire. He then returned to Birmingham, graduating with a B Sc in Anatomical Sciences and then MB, ChB in 1965. He began his career with hospital posts in the West Midlands before spending four years at Hammersmith Hospital in London, combining this post with that of Tutor in Clinical Pharmacology at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School. He joined the Medical School of the University of Southampton in 1973, shortly after it was founded, became Professor of Clinical Pharmacology in 1975 and twice served as Dean of the Faculty of Medicine. Sir Charles also served as Chairman of the Education Committee of the General Medical Council for five years until 1999. He was knighted in 1998 for services to medicine and medical education. His interests extend well beyond medicine as he is also a Fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (FRSA), a distinction normally found in the Arts Faculty of universities.

Sir Charles George became Medical Director of the British Heart Foundation in 1999. The British Heart Foundation is one of the largest medical charities in the UK. Its activities span biomedical research, where its budget is in excess of £50 million per year, and campaigning for improved public health. Death rates from coronary heart disease have been falling in the UK since the early 1970s, partly due to the research funded by the BHF. As Medical Director, Sir Charles moved the charity more in the direction of work on prevention, as against cure, of heart disease. He also forged strong links with the charity’s twenty five research chairs in British universities, including this one where the BHF Chair is held by Professor Nilesh Samani. In 2002 Sir Charles gave the Frank May Clinical Science Lecture in this University.

Sir Charles has frequently pointed out that most heart disease is avoidable if we take simple measures to improve our lifestyle. In the words of the General Confession of the Church of England “we have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and there is no health in us”. Principal amongst the “things we ought not to have done” is, of course, the smoking of cigarettes. Sir Charles and the BHF have campaigned strongly against the use of Nicotiana tabacum, emphasizing its deleterious effects on the health of the smoker. This campaign led to Sir Charles being strongly criticised in print by Boris Johnson MP: many would consider this a point in his favour. In case one feels that this campaign was a knee-jerk reaction (a good medical metaphor) by a puritanical doctor, I mention that Sir Charles did not at first support the recently-introduced ban on smoking in enclosed public places. He changed his mind in 2004 on the basis of new evidence. Amongst the “things we ought to have done” is to take a reasonable amount of exercise. The British Heart Foundation estimates that about a third of deaths from coronary heart disease are a result of a lack of physical activity, as compared to about a sixth which are due to the effects of smoking. During his time as Medical Director, Sir Charles launched the “Walking: the Way to Health” initiative in 2000. This is a joint initiative between the BHF and the Countryside Agency. Sir Charles has said that “Walking is one of the easiest, most convenient and inexpensive forms of exercise.” I would add that it is also conducive to thinking. The recommended amount of 10,000 steps a day (about five miles) significantly improves one’s general health and increases life expectancy. At least, regular walking extends one’s life expectancy unless one is murdered on the pavement by a rampaging cyclist; or by the driver of a Chelsea Tractor – sorry, Sports Utility Vehicle – who feels that an off-road capability means that they can drive on the said pavement. Sir Charles practises what he preaches, reckoning to walk more than the recommended amount virtually every day.

Sir Charles resigned as Medical Director of the BHF at the end of 2004 in order to concentrate on his work as President of the British Medical Association. This one-year post, which he held in 2004-05, was a fitting culmination to a life spent in medicine.

Mr Chancellor, on the recommendation of the Senate and of the Council, I present Professor Sir Charles George that you may confer on him the Honorary degree of Doctor of Science

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