Gordon McVie

Credit: PA Images

Professor Gordon McVie was a giant in cancer research. His work spanned decades, crossed continents, and covered everything from cancer prevention to cancer research. He will be remembered by many for his passion, his optimism and for never being afraid to call someone out – from industry executives to Prime Ministers.

Almost 20 years since Cancer Research UK was founded, only a handful of staff who worked with McVie remain, but many will remember him as the person who gave the charity its beginning.

A key figure in cancer treatment and research

Born in Glasgow in 1945, McVie went on to study Medicine and Pathology at Edinburgh University. He stayed in Edinburgh after his studies, becoming a lecturer, before becoming involved with the Cancer Research Campaign in 1976. He worked closely with their cancer unit in Glasgow, and the charity funded his research, alongside the Medical Research Council.

After what became a 9-year sabbatical at the Netherlands Cancer Institute, McVie moved to Cancer Research Campaign in 1989 as the scientific director then director general.

McVie spent over 12 years at the charity. During this time at Cancer Research Campaign, he oversaw many significant research developments, including new drugs such as including carboplatin and abiraterone from the lab to clinical trials, making key discoveries that led to the development of PARP inhibitors, and showing that HPV infection is the main cause of cervical cancer, something that has drastically shifted our approach to preventing this type of cancer. He was also one of the architects of the Cancer Trials Network, which connected cancer centres across the country to help improve access to early-stage clinical trials.

He was a key figure in British cancer research and globally.

– Iain Foulkes, Cancer Research UK’s executive director of research and innovation. 

McVie is well known as a key figure in cancer treatment and research. But perhaps less well remembered is the major contribution he made to cancer prevention and, in particular, tobacco control. Jean King, who worked with McVie on tobacco at both Cancer Research Campaign and Cancer Research UK, remembers how he recognised the power of the media, and was not afraid to issue controversial statements to raise the profile of important public health issues, such as the influence enjoyed by the tobacco industry in the 90s. He was not afraid of controversy.

“Gordon fought the good fight that has led us to where we are today – firmly aware that the tobacco industry has no place in public health,” says King.

He led the charity into a merger with the Imperial Cancer Research Fund in 2002 to create the largest cancer research charity in Europe – Cancer Research UK. He jointly led the new organisation with Professor Sir Paul Nurse, continuing to support drug development and scientific start ups.

Gordon was charming, he laughed and smiled a lot, and had the ability to speak in a language those who had been touched by cancer responded to. He was a good colleague and managed to get the charities to work together.

– Professor Sir Paul Nurse

McVie left the charity in 2002, but it was by no means the end. In 2003, he became a senior consultant at the European Institute of Oncology in Milan, responsible for science policy amongst other things. McVie remained a staunch advocate for cancer patients, and cancer prevention in the UK, calling out the government’s delay in implementing a ban on tobacco advertising. In 2007, he set up the online platform eCancer with Professor Umberto Veronesi, to help raise the standard of care for people with cancer around the world through education.

Forty years in cancer clinical research and people still dying in their thousands. I’d like a better epitaph than that so I’m still following my curiosity genotype, arranging marriages between lab and clinical scientists, and communicating globally online as founding editor of ecancer.org. – Gordon McVie, LinkedIn

A truly brilliant man

The tributes paid to McVie speak for themselves. He’s been described as an “internationally renowned leader, “a truly brilliant man” and “a man of cast iron integrity”. Colleagues have spoken of his willingness to help others and his determination to tackle inequalities in access to cancer treatments across the globe.

Iain Foulkes, our executive director of research and innovation said McVie was a centre figure in the history of Cancer Research UK. “He was a colourful character who had an extraordinary ability to communicate with cancer scientists, clinicians, donors and members of the public and inspire belief in the power of science to combat this disease.”

King said that as a boss, McVie was a hard taskmaster, but he was also considerate and caring. “My recollection of Gordon’s care for his staff was receiving, at my parents’ house up North, a hand-written letter of condolence when my father died.” King remembers he always took the time to help family or friends of staff who had cancer to receive a second opinion where helpful.

McVie devoted his career to clinical and cancer research – a career that spanned 40 years and led to over 350 research papers and 5 books. He died aged 76 after a short illness.


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