Professor Dame Sheila Sherlock – A life devoted to the liver

Posted on: 14th March 2024

Dame Sheila Sherlock was a world-renowned hepatologist who founded the British Liver Trust. Her daughter, Amanda has kindly shared the story of her mum’s life and the legacy she created.

"Mum was born on the 31st of March 1918 in Dublin, and her early years were shaped by both challenges and triumphs. Following her family's move to London and later to Sandgate in Kent on the south coast, my mum's academic brilliance began to shine through. Despite the adversity of being raised by a single parent, she excelled at Folkestone Grammar School, demonstrating a keen intellect and a thirst for knowledge that would define her future endeavours.

Her path to medical school was not without its obstacles. In 1935, Mum was awarded a grant and loan to pursue further education but faced rejection from every English medical university. This was a stark indication of the attitudes towards women in the field at that time. Undeterred, she persisted, embodying the spirit of resilience that would come to define her career. Finally, in August 1936, she received a late acceptance to study medicine at Edinburgh University, setting the stage for her remarkable journey ahead.

In July 1941, Mum graduated top of her year and won a scholarship that should have led to a house physician appointment. Unfortunately, that didn’t go to plan as Edinburgh didn’t have any live-in quarters for women! Edinburgh’s loss was certainly London’s gain - Hammersmith Hospital was to be the place to launch her career.

Dame Sheila speaking at a gathering with colleagues past and present

In 1959, she became the United Kingdom's first ever female Professor of Medicine when she was appointed at the Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine in London. She founded the liver unit that started in a temporary wooden hut on the roof of the hospital in Gray's Inn Road. Despite its location, the department attracted trainees from around the world, and many current leaders in the field of hepatology spent time there. The hospital moved to Hampstead and her research and teaching went from strength to strength.

Throughout her career, my mum faced the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated world head-on. Yet, she never allowed these obstacles to dim her spirit or deter her from her objectives. Instead, she viewed each challenge as an opportunity to affect positive change, paving the way for future generations of women in medicine.

Beyond her professional accomplishments, Mum was a woman of diverse interests and passions. From her love of cricket and the Arsenal to her appreciation for the arts, she found joy in the simple pleasures of life. Yet, it was her unwavering dedication to liver health advocacy that remained the driving force behind her every endeavour.

In 1978, my mum's tireless dedication and ground-breaking contributions to the field of liver health were recognised with the highest honour– she became a Dame of the British Empire. This momentous occasion was not only a testament to her professional achievements but also a reflection of her unwavering commitment to serving others. Despite this prestigious recognition, my mum remained humble, preferring to be known as Professor, instead of Dame Sheila Sherlock. As was in keeping with my mum’s humility, we celebrated the occasion with a meal at McDonald's. Not the place many go after being honoured by the Queen!

Receiving the DBE

Behind my mum’s success was my father, who was also a notable physician. They were a formidable team together and it was their strong partnership that enabled Mum to pursue her passion for liver health advocacy with such dedication and determination.

In May 1994, The Royal Free Hospital opened the Sheila Sherlock Education Centre, something my mum was immensely proud of.

Dame Sheila at the opening of the Sheila Sherlock Education Centre

By the time of Mum’s death in 2001, she had dedicated nearly 60 years of her life to hepatology, with over 40 of those years at the Royal Free Hospital. She published over 600 papers and had written or edited over 25 books. Her enthusiasm for hepatology never waned.

I am filled with a profound sense of gratitude for the legacy my mum has left behind. She was an incredible woman, an innovator, a pioneer, and a driving force behind the foundation of the speciality of hepatology. But most importantly, she was a great Mum. I am immensely proud of what she achieved. Her commitment to liver health advocacy has laid the foundation for the remarkable progress achieved thus far.

Together, we have the power to make a meaningful difference in the lives of countless individuals affected by liver disease. Let us honour my mum's legacy, and build on our own legacies, by continuing to work towards a future where liver health is prioritised and supported for all. I, for one, cannot wait to see what the charity can accomplish in the future."

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