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Lionel Opie

(Cape Province & Lincoln 1956) (6 May 1933 – 20 February 2020)

Lionel Opie was born in South Africa in 1933, and after attending school in Cape Town, he went on to the undertake his medical degree at the University of Cape Town where he obtained a 1st Class honours as well as the gold medal in his final year; his academic credentials evolving from an earlier stage of his career.

After his internship at Groote Schuur Hospital, he went to Oxford University where he continued his medical training undertaking house jobs at the Radcliffe Infirmary, in addition to obtaining a Wellcome Trust Fellowship to undertake research under the Nobel Laureate, Sir Hans Krebs. It was here that he obtained his PhD degree investigating myocardial metabolism.

Further clinical positions followed at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston, the Toronto General Hospital in Toronto, and then to London to become a consultant in Medicine at the Hammersmith Hospital and Imperial College where he continued as a Research Fellow under another Nobel Laureate, Sir Ernst Chain.

This very productive period covered the 1960’s and in the early 70’s he returned to his country of birth, South Africa, to take up the position as Director of the then named Medical Research Council Research Unit for Ischaemic Heart Disease at the University of Cape Town. His work revealed the metabolic derangements of carbohydrate and fatty acid metabolism of the ischaemic heart and demonstrated how acute myocardial infarction induces acute adrenergic stimulation. This increases circulating free fatty acids, further damaging the function of the heart which in turn inhibits glucose uptake causing more injury. This concept has had significant clinical implications. The treatment of acute coronary syndromes with beta-blockers is now routine therapy worldwide and has saved numerous lives.

During the following two decades the name of Lionel Opie was synonymous with three items.

  1. a creative investigator with an excellent research output,

  2. international travel and awards—too many to mention—and,

  3. what many of us agree on as arguably his greatest asset, and that is his ability to disseminate knowledge

by this we mean both in his own scientific writings (he has published in excess of 500 manuscripts) and in addition he has published 31 books on heart disease, including his now legendary books ‘Drugs for the Heart’ (now in its 9th edition) and ‘Heart Physiology’ (now in its 4th edition) to name but just two. For me personally (BJG), the opportunity to work with him on this book as a co-editor provided me with a great learning experience and Lionel Opie was masterful as an author and editor.

It is difficult to pick out the highlights of his career, as there are so many, but one particular and notable highlight was his formation, in 1970, of what was then called the ‘Study Group for Research in Heart Metabolism’, which as we all know has become the famous ‘International Society for Heart Research’. In addition, he was the founding editor of the Journal of Molecular and Cellular Cardiology, affectionally known as the ‘Yellow journal’ so you can see his contribution to cardiovascular medicine, as a whole, was huge.

Now to conclude on a more personal note. As we are aware political change occurred within South Africa in the early 1990s and in 1995, Lionel Opie and Derek Yellon set about cementing links between the University of Cape Town and University College London with the establishment of a second Hatter Institute for Cardiology at the University of Cape Town Medical School in Cape Town, initially with Lionel as its Director.

This was celebrated at the start of a 22-year collaboration by the establishment of the well-known series of meetings namely ‘Cardiology, Diabetes, & Nephrology at the Limits’. These meetings have become internationally recognized and now linked with the Brigham & Women’s’ Hospital, Boston, The University of Campinas in Brazil and the University of Toronto in Canada as well as having the world-famous medical journal, the Lancet as a partner.

The 22nd ‘Cardiology, Diabetes & Nephrology at the Limits’ meeting is being held at the Royal College of Physcians on the 31st Oct -1st Nov 2020 and will be dedicated to the memory of Professor Lionel Opie.

Professor Opie has been an inspiration to all. His knowledge and his is contribution to cardiovascular research has been truly immense and we honour his decades of dedication to the understanding of cardiovascular disease in all its facets.

From a personal point of view, as a South African, Lionel was deeply humbled and honoured when he received the Order of Mapungubwe from President Thabo Mbeki; this being the highest award that the country can bestow on its citizens—a truly wonderful culmination to the great career of a great man. We will miss him deeply as a friend, colleague, and mentor.