News Releases

Celebrating with Sir George

For Release Upon Receipt - October 6, 2012

St. Augustine

According to Julio Frenk, Dean of the Harvard School of Public Health, Sir George Alleyne was nicknamed “The Champ” back in high school on account of his mastery of everything he turned his hand to, and the name stuck. It's an epithet more usually reserved for heavyweight boxers, but seems equally apt for an intellectual bruiser like Alleyne. “He's a rare combination”, says Frenk: “a deep thinker, on the one hand, and a good policy maker with very good political instincts, on the other.” That combination proved extremely useful during Alleyne's influential reign as Director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) from 1995 until 2003.

Alleyne officially retired from public service in 2003, ostensibly to spend more time tending his roses and being given the runaround by his seven grandchildren. The roses, though, if not the grandchildren, are still starved of attention. As Director Emeritus of PAHO, Alleyne has retained his profile as “one of the most influential thinkers on the global scene”, notes Frenk. Most recently, he deployed his diplomatic clout to push non-communicable diseases (NCDs) further up the international political agenda. Last September's high-level UN summit on NCDs was only the second time the organisation had convened to look at a health issue, and the credit, insists Frenk, “really belongs to Sir George”. It was Alleyne, he says, “who had the persuasive power to convince the heads of government of the Caribbean states to get the process started, which then mushroomed into this large-scale initiative that has really changed the conversation in global health”.

For his part, Alleyne is loath to take credit, speaking instead of his pride that his native Caribbean played such a central part in making the summit happen. He is, says Edward Greene, who succeeded Alleyne as the UN Secretary General's Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in the Caribbean Region, “a man who has never forgotten his roots”. Born in Barbados in 1932, Alleyne caused “some consternation” when, in 1951, with a national scholarship to his credit and his pick of international universities, he opted to study medicine at the University of the West Indies (UWI), quickly living up to that nickname and graduating as gold medallist in 1957. But the most important thing that happened to him there, he recalls fondly, was meeting a young nurse, Sylvan.

The couple married in 1958, and shortly after Alleyne returned to Barbados to work as a medical officer. But it wasn't long before his curiosity led him to the UK for further training at University College London, under the tutelage of Max Rosenheim. “He was really one of nature's gentleman”, Alleyne says of Rosenheim. “He was so kind to myself and my wife. A great mentor he was too, and he told me something that I always pass on to young students now. He said ‘don't you make long-range plans. Just do what you are doing well, and it will become quite obvious when you need to do something different.’”

Alleyne clearly took the “doing well” part to heart, returning to UWI and becoming “one of the favourite students of John Waterlow”, says Frenk. Waterlow was a titanic figure in nutrition research and was, Alleyne recalls, “the last person I called boss”. At the UWI Tropical Metabolism Research Unit that he established, Waterlow was a “genuine boss”, says Alleyne; “the kind of boss who never told you no. Anything you wanted to do, his first question was always ‘how are you going to do it?’”

By 1972 Alleyne had been appointed professor of medicine at UWI, becoming Chair of the department just 4 years later, and for the best part of the next decade he thrived there. “There was a good postgraduate programme, my own research into renal metabolism was really going well”, he says, “even if I say so myself we were one of the better groups in the world at that time, and we'd just built a new building for the department.” And then, in 1981, he decided to leave. “People always ask ‘why did you decide to leave?’ And I say ‘you always leave when things are going well.’” It was as Rosenheim had told him: “it just became clear to me that was the time for other people to take over”.

Finding himself inundated with job offers, Alleyne plumped for Chief of the Unit of Research at PAHO, initially with the aim of staying for 1 year. He stayed for 22, serving as Assistant Director under Carlyle Guerra de Macedo for 4 years before succeeding him as Director. Alleyne's two terms at the helm saw PAHO celebrate its centennial, and reaffirm its commitment to the principles of equity and pan-Americanism. This year the organisation marks its 110th anniversary, and under the stewardship of its newly elected Director, Carissa Etienne, who takes up her new role in 2013, Alleyne hopes the next 110 years will see PAHO “continue to offer technical cooperation of quality to the countries of the Americas such that they improve their health and reduce their inequities”.

Alleyne also has his own special anniversary this year. On October 7, he will gather his enormous family together for what promises to be a raucous celebration of his 80th birthday. An opportune moment, then, to reflect on a remarkable career. For Jon Andrus, Deputy Director of PAHO, “Sir George's real legacy will be the imprint he left on the minds and commitment of thousands of young, enthusiastic health professionals from around the world”. And Andrus speaks for many when he says “a deep heartfelt thank you, and happy birthday George”.