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Logo of bmjThis ArticleThe BMJ
BMJ. 2007 August 25; 335(7616): 404.
PMCID: PMC1952487

Laurence Fraser Levy

Pioneer of neurosurgery in the developing world

Laurence Levy was a selfless personality and pioneer of neurosurgery in the developing world who dedicated his life to the people in East and Central Africa. After qualifying in 1945, he served in the Royal Air Force—the beginning of a lifelong interest in flying and, in later years, gliding—before going to New York, where he specialised as a neurosurgeon. He went on to travel the world as a ship's doctor (the Royal Mail line), treating local people at the ports, as well as those on board. During one particular stop he performed the first neurosurgical operation in Jamaica, and went on to perform the first of such operations in four other countries. He settled in Rhodesia in 1956 as consultant neurosurgeon to the Salisbury Group of Hospitals. For many years he was the only neurosurgeon between Johannesburg and Cairo, often flying long distances to the places he was most needed.

Over the next 50 years, he contributed immensely to the methods and practices of medicine in the third world. His legacies are numerous, but he always emphasised the following three points of view.

Firstly, much of his work focused on the methods and practices of providing quality medical treatment with extremely limited resources and tools in the developing world. Numerous publications highlighted his ideas, but one of his most meaningful contributions is the Harare shunt, a ventricular-peritoneal shunt that could be manufactured cheaply, allowing the many sufferers of hydrocephalus to have access to a medical solution not otherwise available.

Secondly, much of his work concentrated on the training of doctors, and he was highly regarded for his dedicated and meaningful contribution as a medical teacher. However, in a controversial article of his published in this journal in July 2003, he questioned the developing world's aspirations to reach first world standards in university education, as such countries cannot compete with the salaries and working conditions that richer countries are happy to pay to have skilled professionals. The result is what he coined the “third world brain drain.” Continuing medical education was another area of concern to him, and to prove his commitment to his views he took the FRCS Ed in 1982, having first taken the FRCS 30 years earlier. Furthermore, he submitted only late last year his MD dissertation to University College London.

Lastly, outside of the medical profession, his political viewpoints were extremely progressive for a white man in Africa. He was strongly and vocally anti-apartheid and he was an early supporter of the African leaders in their struggle for independence in Zimbabwe. He frequently treated the political detainees during their imprisonment by the racist regime. Many of his close friends were key figures in the gaining of independence. However, the clear mismanagement in later years was a cause of distress for him.

He received numerous national and international awards over the years for his work, including a medal of honor from the World Federation of Neurosurgeons in 2004 for “outstanding contribution to neurosurgery in the third world.”

Predeceased by his wife, Lorraine, a professor of medicine, he leaves two sons, Bruce and Malcolm.

Laurence Fraser Levy, consultant neurosurgeon, professor and chairman, department of anatomy, and honorary lecturer, department of surgery, University of Zimbabwe (b 16 November 1921; q University College Hospital, London, 1945; MSc Neurosurgery (New York 1954), FRCS (1955), FRCS Ed (1982)), died from a stroke in England on 29 May 2007.

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