A Surgeon and a Maverick: The wonderful life of Magdi Yacoub

A Surgeon and a Maverick: The wonderful life of Magdi Yacoub
Book Club: After 60 years at the forefront of medicine, we take a look back at the colossal achievements of British-Egyptian surgeon, Sir Magdi Yacoub.
6 min read
31 January, 2024
The incredible life story of legendary cardiac surgeon and scientist Magdi Yacoub, an outsider who succeeded against the odds [American University in Cairo Press]

The notion of heart surgery and the science that informs it is often an obscure landscape for many of us. It is a world for the privileged and gifted and the few honoured to enter its orbit.

Yet, veteran journalists Simon Pearson and Fiona Gorman have penned the biography of one of the most remarkable heart surgeons of the 20th century, Magdi Yacoub, animating the topography of surgery, biomedicine, research, and healthcare for a broader audience.

Their new book, A Surgeon and a Maverick: The Life and Pioneering Work of Magdi Yacoub, is not simply about Yacoub’s extensive and distinctive professional career but an all-encompassing examination of his life and how his personality and incentives drove his accomplishments.

"From pioneering work with aortic root and valve disease to developing the arterial switch, Yacoub has been universally acknowledged by world leaders and clerics for pushing the boundaries of surgical endeavours"

The book is an intimate portrait of the man who humbly calls himself an ordinary man despite his colossal achievements and the illimitable individuals that would become intertwined in his story.

Born in Belbeis, a small town on the banks of the Nile in Egpyt, to a Coptic Christian family, Magdi Habib Yacoub would grow to be one of the world's most formidable scientists and surgeons. Knighted in 1992 and awarded the highest honour in the gift of the Queen, the Order of Merit, 2014.

Yacoub has pioneered advances in heart surgery, leaving a multigenerational impact. While the book is permeated with medical vernacular, this tale transcends boundaries, exemplifying a life in service to humanity and knowledge.

Sir Magdi Yacoub is best known for performing the UK's first combined heart and lung transplant in 1983 [Getty Images]
Sir Magdi Yacoub is best known for performing the UK's and Europe's first combined heart and lung transplant in 1983 [Getty Images]

Magdi Yacoub: A life of firsts

Born in 1935, Yacoub was always precocious and had an impressive academic record. However, it was the death of his aunt from heart disease caused by rheumatic fever that would ignite his lifelong career in medicine.

While his family did not always encourage him in his ambitions, he nonetheless felt more determined, always doing things unconventionally. This sentiment would shape his adult life, earning him the title of Maverick. He would rise among the top graduates as a medical student at Cairo University.

In 1956, during the Suez Crisis, when Britain collaborated with France and Israel to invade Egypt, Yacoub was recruited by the civil defence organisation and sent to the canal as a part of the medical team.

Although he committed to remaining apolitical, Yacoub recalled, “I didn’t want to mix with activists. My focus was medicine and humanity. I have never veered from that position.” He forged relationships with influential professors and gained prominence for his acuity, stamina, and compassion.

While medical education in Egypt flourished, advances abroad drew in Yacoub. He eventually left his homeland for Britain under the auspices of working with Professor Sir Russel Brock. Brock was an inspirational figure who worked at Guy’s and the Royal Brompton Hospital and pioneered open heart surgery.

His career is marked by partnerships with other remarkable surgeons, researchers, and grateful patients. He would go on to make salient advancements in cardiac surgery and, more notably, be the first surgeon to perform a heart-lung transplant in Europe in 1983.

Despite national outrage, he never wavered, navigating fierce debates on the ethics and legality of organ donation, and would later establish the longest-running transplant program at Harefield Hospital in its eponymous rural and idyllic village.

A brief stint in America revealed the strength of the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) to Yacoub. He would remain perplexed by the inequity in American healthcare despite their achievements in medicine, an attitude that continues to emphatically echo today. In retirement, he continues to work in research and bolster charities to make healthcare more accessible to impoverished communities.

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The book results from over forty interviews with Yacoub, who remains deeply engaged in medicine and humanitarian work despite his age and retirement. We are exposed to many facets of a marvellous man. His intelligence is indubitably unmatched, and still, he is described as regularly being self-composed and warm.

Numerous accounts of his patients and their families are documented by Pearson and Gorman to give a comprehensive and almost cinematic overview of his influence.

The reader is introduced to the complexities of several cardiac procedures, such as heart-lung transplants, heart valve surgery, and the Ross procedure, in which a diseased heart valve is replaced by the patient’s pulmonary valve and the atrial switch. These operations' poetic precision is conveyed tactfully for the lay reader juxtaposed with Yacoub’s life as a father, husband, colleague, and mentor and a look into his love for music, gardening, and even fast cars.

A heart of gold: Magdi Yacoub the humanitarian

Furthermore, his philosophy on healthcare and community is heartening. He approached all patients with the resolve to help them, taking on often deemed hopeless cases.

Yacoub regards the NHS as the best healthcare model to follow and is passionate about its history and unifying forces. He was always troubled by the inequities in healthcare delivery, wondering how to redress them. When he was in America, it became clear that while American medicine was outstanding, the healthcare system had conformed to a profit-driven and capitalistic industry for which he had no tolerance.

Decades later, little has changed. The American insurance-based system continues to bankrupt people, forcing them to choose between debt or survival. In contrast, the British NHS is a nationwide socialised system funded by taxes, making it more attainable. While both systems need improvement, according to Yacoub, the primary ethos of healthcare as a right and not a privilege must be the foundation.

From pioneering work with aortic root and valve disease to developing the arterial switch, Yacoub has been universally acknowledged by world leaders and clerics for pushing the boundaries of surgical endeavours. His techniques have been life-changing for thousands of families.

The story of Magdi Yacoub is memorable regardless of one’s life path. It is marked by his indefatigability, imagination, and empathy. Moreover, his work has always been underpinned by the belief that healthcare is a human right and uncovering ways to make it unrestricted to all.

He is a man who has acquired wealth in unprecedented ways but has never considered money as an end in itself but rather a means of achieving a fairer world.

Although Madgi Yacoub is celebrated globally for being at the forefront of surgical innovation, Pearson and Gorman’s book will allow his enchanting charisma to radiate and reach a far-ranging audience, amplifying his influence. Whether or not you are interested in the medical field, Yacoub’s tale will impassion anyone striving to create a more just and honourable society.

Noshin Bokth has over six years of experience as a freelance writer. She has covered a wide range of topics and issues including the implications of the Trump administration on Muslims, the Black Lives Matter movement, travel reviews, book reviews, and op-eds. She is the former Editor in Chief of Ramadan Legacy and the former North American Regional Editor of the Muslim Vibe

Follow her on Twitter: @BokthNoshin