Professor Sir Nicholas Wright

Doctor of Science Professor Sir Nicholas Wright

Tuesday 19 July 2011 - Orator: Professor Peter Mathieson

Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor,

Today’s honorary graduand is one of the most distinguished figures in academic medicine in the UK. He is about to retire from the post of Warden of Barts and the London, one of the country’s largest and most prestigious medical schools. A former President of the Pathological Society of Great Britain & Ireland and of the British Society for Gastroenterology, his eminence in the field of gastrointestinal pathology is unquestionable.Were this not sufficient reason to honour him today, I should add that Professor Sir Nicholas Wright is a proud Bristolian.

Nicholas Alcwyn Wright was born in Langton Street in Bedminster and attended Victoria Park Primary School. He then went to Bristol Grammar School, succeeded in a fast-track O level course and applied to medical school at the remarkably precocious age of 16. Although he was offered a first year place to study medicine here in Bristol, Durham medical school trumped our predecessors’ offer by taking him straight into the second year. He graduated in 1965 and after house jobs went into pathology: for any members of the audience who don’t know, this is the branch of medicine concerned with analysis of tissue samples, biopsies etc and also of post-mortems. The standard description in medicine of the sub-divisions of the profession is that the physician (like me) knows a lot but does nothing, the surgeon knows little and does a lot, whereas the pathologist knows everything, but always a week too late!

Nick trained in pathology at the University of Newcastle in the Royal Victoria Infirmary, accumulating two postgraduate degrees, an MD in 1973 and a PhD in 1975, the year in which he became a senior lecturer. He is remembered by a contemporary medical graduate of the University of Newcastle, our Vice-Chancellor, as a particularly violent rugby player. In 1977 he moved to a Clinical Readership at the University of Oxford, and was made Nuffield Reader in Pathology in 1978. In 1979 he was appointed to the Chair of Histopathology at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School at Hammersmith Hospital, a position he held for 17 years. In 1988 he was seconded to the Imperial Cancer Research Fund and moved his laboratory to Lincoln's Inn Fields, where it has remained ever since. In 1991 he was appointed Director of Clinical Research at the ICRF and in 1994, when Charing Cross and the Hammersmith merged to form the Hammersmith hospitals NHS Trust, he was the first Clinical Director of Pathology. In 1996, when the Royal Postgraduate Medical School joined Imperial College, he was appointed Dean of the RPMS and then Deputy Principal of the Imperial College School of Medicine. He moved to Barts and the London as Warden and Vice-Principal in 2001.

His colleagues over the years talk of his sharp intellect, his dedicated hard work, his fierce devotion to the cause, his intolerance of fools, his legendary parties and his quirky sense of humour. Nick Wright is the master of the one-liner. Many of his best are somewhat irreverent and would not bear repeating in a setting as august as today’s. However, as an illustration, one of my favourites came when he and I were sharing lunch with a distinguished and eminent professor who is a Dame of the realm. When she hesitated before agreeing to have a dessert, Nick urged her on, saying “go on, you need it: I’ve seen more meat on a butcher’s apron!” His mischievous sense of humour has influenced his management style: when he received a critical letter about a student rag magazine from a certain Dr Brown, he wrote to Dr Brown, attaching a copy of the letter and saying “I thought you should see this: some lunatic is writing ridiculous letters to me using your name and address!”

Nick Wright’s research has focused on tumour biology, especially in the colon, and on stem cells. I read a review he wrote about colorectal tumours and was amused to find the theory that these tumours develop “bottom-up”: I think he was serious rather than this being another one of his one-liners, this phrase reflecting the position of the cells that carry the original mutations. His work has also focused on stem cells in the gut, study of which promises to lead to new treatments for gut disease of various types, and on stem cells more generally, for instance the ways in which bone marrow transplants lead to repopulation of many different organs of the body. He has published (at the latest count) 241 peer-reviewed papers, 79 reviews, 56 book chapters and he has edited or written no less than 11 books; altogether, a prodigious publication output. He has also served as Editor, Associate Editor or member of the editorial board for numerous academic journals and has served on research funding bodies in the UK, Spain, France and The Netherlands.  He has supervised 37 successful research students during their work for PhD degrees, and 14 of his trainees have gone on to hold professorships, mainly in pathology.

He has received various medals and awards, was a founder Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences in 1998, and was knighted in the New Year’s Honours of 2005/6 for services to medicine.

In 2006 he became President of the Old Bristolians, his old school’s alumni association, and in this role he championed scholarships to give disadvantaged children access to the same educational opportunities that he himself had had. I hope you will agree that the scholarships that Nick earned as a schoolboy and as an aspiring medical student have represented very good investments.

His talents extend to cooking, playing the piano and singing, and he also collects swords. In whatever spare time he can muster, he enjoys the company of his family and especially his grand-children.

Nick Wright is a gifted academic, effective manager, renowned researcher, role model and leader. He brings great credit to Bristol as a son of this city. Mr Pro Vice Chancellor it gives me great pleasure to commend Professor Sir Nicholas Alcwyn Wright as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa.

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