Born: January 13, 1945;

Died: January 20, 2021.

PROFESSOR Gordon McVie, who has died aged 75, was a Scottish clinician and campaigner who became one of the world’s leading authorities on the treatment of cancer and, for many years in the UK, was the public face of the battle against it.

He believed in fighting the disease on many fronts and in taking every new opportunity to do so. He was a clinician first and foremost, but he was also a researcher, campaigner, educator, publicist, and innovator, renowned as a master of the soundbite.

He fought for better treatments, and more money, and as Director General of the Cancer Research Campaign, saw more than 60 new drugs proceed from the lab to clinical trial. Research, he believed, was the key to success and he pushed for many more patients to be involved in trials.

He also realised that doctors could not beat cancer without politicians’ money and influence and when he was head of the CRC (which later became Cancer Research UK, the largest charity in the world funding cancer research) he became an outspoken critic of government policy while Tony Blair was at Number 10.

The new Prime Minister had announced that cancer was one his government’s top priorities, but Professor McVie said that government funding was inadequate. He also criticised lack of action over the tobacco industry and the persistent problem of patients being denied access to new drugs.

His public passion and criticism certainly made him an irritant for some politicians, but he also became unpopular with some other doctors when he said, in 2000, that cancer could be defeated in the lifetime of his children. In response, The Lancet devoted an editorial about what it called over-optimism about cancer but he was unrepentant: with enough money and effort, he said, cancer could be defeated within 50 years.

He vehemently promoted his message during his years in charge at the CRC, which he had joined as scientific director in 1989. However, his time at the charity did not end well. In the early 2000s, he led a merger of the CRC and the Imperial Cancer Research Fund and for a time shared the job of chief executive with Nobel prizewinner Sir Paul Nurse. But the new charity then decided that it wanted a sole chief executive and Professor McVie was made redundant.

It was a bewildering time for McVie, who had worked hard at the charity for more than 10 years. Speaking in 2002, he said he didn’t have a clue what had happened to him but that he needed to get on with doing something else. “I will not be giving up on trying to help cancer patients,” he said. “I feel too much passion for that.”

He also said that, like many people who are made redundant, he was struggling to come to terms with it. “I suppose I simply feel the way other men feel when they are made redundant,” he said. “I was shocked, puzzled, because I loved the CRC very much and spent 13 years of my life with it.”

He soon found a new focus for his energies, though. In 2003 he became senior consultant at the European Institute of Oncology in Milan, with responsibility for planning strategy and science policy. He also started, in 2007, the online journal, ecancer, with his Italian colleague, Prof Umberto Veronesi,and became a director of Cancer Intelligence, which provides advice to patients, the media and pharmaceutical companies.

For Professor McVie, it was all part of a defining mission which had begun early in his life. Born in Glasgow to John McVie, a lawyer, and Lindsaye, a nurse, the family moved to Edinburgh when he was young.

The young Gordon was educated at the Royal High School in Edinburgh but initially did not show much academic promise. Even while studying medicine at Edinburgh University he still struggled initially to engage with the subject.

But one of the motivators for Gordon was the death of his favourite aunt, Jean, from ovarian cancer. Gordon’s mother nursed Jean at her home for six months and the young doctor said it was one of the reasons he went into cancer research. After graduating, he stayed on at Edinburgh as a lecturer in therapeutics before joining the Cancer Research Campaign Oncology Unity in Glasgow, working under Sir Kenneth Calman.

In 1980, he moved to the Netherlands to become clinical research director at the country’s Cancer Institute – it was initially intended to be a short-term appointment, but he ended up staying for nine years. He also worked as a consultant in oncology at the Antoni van Leewenhoek hospital in Amsterdam before returning to Britain in the late 1980s to take up the post of scientific director at the CRC.

In his later years, Professor McVie was a visiting professor at several universities, including King’s College London, and a familiar presence at cancer conferences. He was also particularly proud of the ecancer journal, whose mission was to raise the standards of care for cancer patients across the world through education. Professor McVie emphasised the importance of having a resource that was free for contributors and readers.

He was married twice, first to Evelyn Strang and secondly to Claudia Burke, whom he met through the CRC. He is survived by his three children from his first marriage, Malcolm, Tammas, and Douglas. Claudia also survives him with his two stepchildren Danny and Susi.