Great Scot Archive
Issues from 1998
Issues from 1998


An unknown hero?

Is Fin Macrae (’67) ‘the hero you’ve never heard of’?


Clinical Photography

As a full-page article in the Herald Sun on Friday 17 May set out, Professor Finlay Alistair Macrae's field of gastroenterology doesn’t make the headlines – and yet it is a critical field of public health.

One statistic highlights its importance: among cancers, only lung cancer kills more Australians annually than bowel cancer.

Finlay Macrae – Fin to his friends and colleagues – was Captain of the School in his final Scotch year of 1967. Long before that, when he was in the Junior School, Fin nurtured an ambition to be a doctor.

Fast forward to 2013, and Fin is one of Australia’s leading bowel cancer experts. He is Head of Colorectal Medicine and Genetics at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. His Master's doctorate at Melbourne University formed the rationale for the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program, which is currently offering free bowel cancer screening to nearly five million Australians.

‘Unknown’ though he may be to many Herald Sun readers, he certainly is well known in national and international gastroenterology. He was recently honoured by the World Gastroenterology Organisation (WGO) for the major contributions he has made to his field.

It was an award Fin almost passed up, as the Herald Sun reported: ‘For a fearsomely smart man, he’s hopeless with emails and paperwork. When he got one from the WGO last month announcing that he had been “selected to receive” the organisation’s highest gong, the 2013 Masters Award, he thought it was spam. Luckily an alert assistant rescued it.’

The ‘Masters of the WGO’ award is the highest honour the international organisation can grant, and it is awarded only to individuals who have shown outstanding dedication to the WGO’s mission, achieving distinction in areas such as scholarly research, teaching, and service to the WGO and the community at large.

Fin has achieved in all those areas, saving literally hundreds of lives, and making life better for many others, not only in Australia. He has also done great work in many overseas countries, frequently in underdeveloped areas.

Just this July, Fin was in Fiji, at the WGO training centre in the Colonial War Memorial Hospital in Suva, which he started in 2007. It is widely acknowledged In Fiji and the WGO as a model programme, focused on transferring skills not only to Fiji doctors, but to the many doctors who come to the centre from throughout the South Pacific islands. He now has a team of over 40 gastroenterologists, surgeons and specialist nurses who participate in the training for a month each year.

Late in August, Fin and his colleagues ran the biennial meeting of the International Society for Gastrointestinal Hereditary Tumours. He is passionate about this organisation too, as it draws many friends and colleagues together in a collaborative approach to answer important questions related to the field of genetics and cancer.

Fin's research back in Australia is aimed at providing the evidence to identify approaches to prevent bowel cancer, such as his recently published work, proving aspirin prevents bowel cancer in certain high risk families; and his discovery work, pushing the boundaries further into the understanding of familial risks for bowel cancer.

He is also closely involved with the Melbourne-based Human Variome Project, which aims to document and share all variations in all genes across humanity. He believes this effort is essential to reap the potentially enormous benefits of the revolution in genetics, in which we are in the midst right now. Fin's team manages and curates the data around the genes predisposing to bowel cancer, establishing a database which attracts 20,000 hits per month.

Although successful in winning funding for some of his projects, Fin wants to press on to new pastures of ideas and discovery, which is only possible with the extra help that donors have generously provided over his career.

Donations are invited to the Finlay Macrae Research Fund, which supports Fin Macrae's vital research program. If you wish to donate to the fund, please visit the Royal Melbourne Hospital Foundation website:, and click on 'How you can help' at the top of the page.

Updated: Thursday 19 September 2013