Former orbit, unique constellation

August 4, 1995

(Photograph) - Chris Edwards returns to London in November to become principal of Imperial College's new medical school, which merges its existing school, St Mary's, with Charing Cross and Westminster Medical School, the Royal Postgraduate Medical School and the National Heart and Lung Institute.

Fifteen years ago he was senior lecturer in medicine at St Bartholomew's Hospital. He fled London to escape the effects of the 1980 Flowers report, in particular Lord Flowers' warning that London University medical schools could either accept rationalisation or "let economic and demographic forces take their inexorable and indiscriminate toll".

Mr Edwards became professor of clinical medicine at Edinburgh University. Edinburgh, with its prestigious medical school, must have seemed a haven after Lord Flowers.

Ironically, Professor Edwards is returning to a medical service beset by the principal change that Flowers advocated: an end to free-standing medical schools, separate from London University colleges.

"London has gone through and is going through a period of major change which has now produced the prospect of some really revolutionary developments, and an Imperial College School of Medicine is one of these," says Professor Edwards. "Putting together these two undergraduate medical schools and two major postgraduate institutions represents a unique constellation."

The medical school will be the single largest part of Imperial, and Professor Edwards acknowledges that some academics are apprehensive about the merger. They fear that it will be a drag on the college, skewing its traditional profile of scientific excellence. "That has to be my job, to make certain that the quality of medicine is matched to the quality of the rest of Imperial."

In the previous research assessment exercise, the postgraduate schools far outstripped the colleges which also have undergraduates. Professor Edwards believes that the schools with undergraduates were less well resourced, and that potential links among all the medical school's members should improve their ratings.

"I think most people recognise that in order to be competitive with modern research, you need a bigger critical mass of people working in particular areas."

He is determined to foster partnerships within the college, creating a "bigger and more exciting environment" for medicine. The merger will boost medicine's strength in basic science, and give staff and students access to expertise in disciplines such as computing, engineering and robotics.

Professor Edwards sees a broader curriculum which covers science from the start as having advantages for academic medicine. "People who have gone through that have an ability to relate to the scientific aspects of medicine, and are more likely to have careers in which research plays a significant role."

There has been an exodus of medical researchers from London in recent years, whose doubts about the future mirrored those Chris Edwards had in 1980.

"I think it's a good time to be going back. Politicians have grasped the nettle, which most people felt should have been grasped a long time ago, with regard to the number of medical schools in London."

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