The boy who dared to take the chalk from the teacher’s hand

He revised for GCSEs with his course books in one hand and a Persian-English dictionary in the other. Kourosh Saeb-Parsy is a transplant surgeon at Addenbrooke’s Hospital where he combines clinical practice with teaching and research. Away from the operating theatre, he’s fast becoming an accomplished antiquarian book restorer.

Kourosh Saeb-Parsy in the operating theatre (© Academy of Medical Sciences, Big T Images)

On 30 May 1989 I walked into a north London comprehensive with my older brother Kasra. I was 13 and he was 14; it was our first day at a new school. With our parents, we’d arrived in the UK a week earlier, flying from Turkey where we’d spent ten anxious months waiting for a visa. We’d left our home in Iran with two suitcases, and starting school in a new country and different language was tough — the culture shock was immense.

Kasra and I had done a year of English at school in Tehran so we were far from fluent. We joined a group of other children in an intensive English language class. At the end of the school day, the teacher suggested we joined a maths class. Kasra and I sat at the back. I still remember the teacher’s name: Mrs Barker. We didn’t understand a word she said but when she drew a right angle triangle on the board, I knew she was asking the class how to calculate the length of the hypotenuse.

I put up my hand and said the Persian word for Pythagoras — but no-one understood. I walked to the front of the class, took the chalk from Mrs Barker’s hand, and wrote the formula on the board. Something of the courage of our parents, who’d sacrificed so much for our future, had seeped into us. We were determined to do well and, though the school ranked low in the borough league tables, we thrived. I’m still in touch with some of our teachers: they’re among my closest friends.

In Iran you start school aged six: I’d been furious when Kasra had begun school without me. Each day when he came home, he’d teach me what he’d learnt. When I too started school, I did his homework as well as mine. Eventually I was allowed to skip a year. Arriving in the UK, we were put in the same school year.

From early on, both my brother and I wanted to be doctors. Today I’m a transplant surgeon at Addenbrooke’s and he’s a urology surgeon in the same hospital.

Kourosh Saeb-Parsy and colleague (© Academy of Medical Sciences, Big T Images)

Only one person at our London school had gone to Oxford or Cambridge — and no-one, as far as I know, had read medicine. Our head of sixth form, Rob Reid, brought a small group of us to Cambridge to look round. I liked the feel of Fitzwilliam College which didn’t have the entrance exam that other colleges still required — and had a reputation for taking students from state schools. Although my A-level predictions were good, I didn’t have a long list of GCSEs. I’d revised with the course books in one hand and a Persian-English dictionary in the other.

The application process got off to a bad start. Late one afternoon, just before the October deadline, I sat in Rob’s office filling in the application form. I was horrified to realise that I’d written in the wrong boxes: we had only one form and it had to be posted the next morning. I drew arrows between the different sections and was convinced that my botched job would rule me out as a strong candidate. But I was called for interview and offered a place.

At Cambridge I fell in love with science — not just medical science but other sciences too. I set up the Cambridge University Scientific Society to encourage communication between the sciences. One summer a group of us began to write a pharmacology text book to fill a need we’d spotted in the literature aimed at medical students. Writing it was a huge learning curve in terms of working as a team on an ambitious project. The book was published by Wiley in 1990 with the description “written for students by students”.

The moment I experienced surgery I knew that it was the discipline for me. The combination of the intellectual challenge and the hands-on craft of surgery — plus the need to work closely with colleagues in other disciplines — suits me perfectly.

I became a University Lecturer and Consultant Transplant Surgeon in 2012. My clinical work involves kidney, pancreas and liver transplantation and laparoscopic (keyhole) surgery to enable a person to donate a kidney to someone else. Much of my work is done as an emergency and out of normal working hours, but I’m fortunate to work as part of a great team. I also run a research group with several PhD students, all of whom do multidisciplinary translational research projects in collaboration with other labs in Cambridge.

Kourosh Saeb=Parsy at work on a book (© Academy of Medical Sciences, Big T Images)

About six years ago I began collecting old books. I’ve always loved books — as works of art as well as vehicles for ideas. At a book fair in Cambridge I met a book binder called Anthony Thomlinson. He’d studied at St John’s College, Cambridge, and worked in advertising before concentrating on what he loved. I asked him to restore some books and began to get really interested in his craft. It took me six months to persuade him to begin to teach me how to restore and bind books.

What appeals to me is the idea of giving something — or someone — a new lease of life. I have a deep need to fix things — which often means carefully picking them apart and reassembling them. With books it’s all about understanding how they were made and with what materials and techniques. I’ve become a kind of apprentice to Anthony who insisted I learnt all the stages of book binding. I started by making paperback books from scratch before moving on to rebinding and eventually restoring books.

At home I have a collection of around 750 books — they include medical texts as well as works of history, poetry and literature. My oldest book is the works of Aristotle dating from 1563. This volume had lost its covers and was falling apart. I have rebound it in sympathetic 16th-century style and it should hopefully last another 500 years. I’ve gradually taken over a spare room at home and turned it into a studio. In my lessons, I spend a couple of hours working in Anthony’s workshop under his expert eye. Among my current projects is a very large medical atlas from the mid-19th century.

Antiquarian books exist in ever-diminishing numbers. They’re precious items and we need to look after them. Also in short supply are the craftspeople who make the materials and tools you need to create or recreate a beautiful book. One of the pleasures of working as a transplant surgeon is the network of friendships that develops between colleagues across institutions. It’s very similar with books. In the end, it’s all about people and their enthusiasm for what they’re doing.

This profile is part of our This Cambridge Life series. Read more about how Kourosh Saeb-Parsy keeps a work-life balance here.

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