Meet the man who made 50 years of heart research possible

David Watson with the Aspire heart valve he developed.
David Watson with the Aspire heart valve he developed.
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WHEN David Watson first qualified as a doctor in 1945, heart surgery did not exist.

Now 94, he has seen the evolution of the technique which now saves millions of lives each year.

And when still in its infancy, he played an integral role in setting up a Leeds charity which has made a huge difference to patients.

His efforts led to the setting up of Heart Research UK, and it was thanks to Yorkshire Evening Post readers that the organisation got off the ground.

“I came to Leeds in the early 60s at a time when we were establishing open heart surgery and it carried very considerable risks,” he said.

At that time, there was a 70 per cent mortality rate for heart surgery, because of the newly-introduced equipment and complications which surgeons did not yet know how to avoid.

“There were a lot of complications following surgery and we lost a lot of patients,” he said.

“It was very frustrating because there seemed to be very little research going on to counteract these flaws and make surgery safer.”

Mr Watson was appalled by the deaths of patients, which included a young boy who died on the operating table, despite the surgery itself being successful.

“In frustration, I invited a reporter from the Yorkshire Evening Post to see what we were doing,” he said.

“He wrote an article which gave me the opportunity to say what I felt about the lack of research, and as a result a group of people approached me with the idea of setting up a charity.

“It is remarkable that from such a small beginning, it has evolved so much as a powerful weapon in the prevention, as well as research into heart disease.”

The National Heart Research Fund was founded in 1967 and this year, the charity – now called Heart Research UK – is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

Initially, the charity funded research in Leeds but as funds grew, it supported programmes in other areas.

Over the years, the charity expanded, with various chief executives at the helm, and Mr Watson paid tribute to the staff who contributed to its success.

“It has grown enormously thanks to the dedication of the staff, who have worked very hard,” he said.

Many heart surgery techniques have benefitted from the charity’s funding, with it paying for several of the first successful heart transplants which took place at Papworth Hospital.

Mr Watson developed the first ever heart valve, made from pigs’ hearts, at Killingbeck Hospital in Leeds, and for over 30 years it was considered the most durable and reliable replacement valve and used across the world.

The developments brought about through research meant that heart surgery became much safer.

“We learned a great deal about how to prevent the complications of open surgery and the mortality rate dropped progressively,” Mr Watson added.

“When I retired in 1987, we had lost one patient in the previous 100.”

Mr Watson, who now lives in Gloucestershire, said the changes he had seen over his career were “remarkable” and he was delighted the charity had such an impact.

“I am very proud of the fact that we have played a part and very grateful to all the people who have worked for Heart Research UK.

“They are very dedicated and they are responsible for its success. I started it but they have worked very hard to achieve its success.”

Barbara Harpham, national director of Heart Research UK, said: “In our 50 year history, many new operations and treatments that we now take for granted, may not have happened when they did without research paid for by our charity.

“We have spent £24m on pioneering medical research in our 50 years, £4m of that in Yorkshire.

“We believe in spending money where it is raised and the people of Yorkshire have been very generous, just as they were when the YEP appealed for the funds that started Yorkshire’s own heart charity.

“Coronary heart disease is Great Britain’s single biggest killer but, thanks to our research, more people are coping with heart disease every day.

“Heart surgery is one of safest forms of surgery, thanks to the vision of David Watson, the pioneering, groundbreaking work of Heart Research UK and the support of the people of Yorkshire, and Leeds in particular, because without their generosity and faith, all this would not have happened.”


This historic year for Heart Research UK is being marked by a special fundraising appeal.

The charity is aiming to raise £50,000 to set up residential camps in Yorkshire for youngsters with heart conditions.

Creating the special camps will be the last phase of a project which began four years ago.

In 2013, research found exercise advice given to child heart patients across the country was inconsistent, despite the positive impact that physical activity could have.

So the following year, the charity developed a toolkit of information on what type of activity children should be doing. Each kit is tailor-made by the child’s cardiologist and enables youngsters to play a fuller part in activities. The next stage was organising a masterclass for experts and now, the £50,000 fundraising appeal will support the development of residential heart camps – the first of their kind in the UK. The stays are designed to enable children to learn how to exercise safely, as activity is vital but often parents are cautious about letting their little ones join in with sports and games.

Hosted in locations such as Lineham Farm in Leeds, children and families will spend a few days with specialists who will get them exercising in a safe environment at a level to suit their condition. The stays will be free, so all youngsters can benefit.

Barbara Harpham, the charity’s national director, said: “Imagine the assurance and confidence they will take home and the memories of a weekend together where, perhaps, for the first time, a family went on a bike ride knowing it was one of the best things they could do for their child. These camps will give lessons for life.”


Money raised will make a huge difference to the lives of children and young people who have had heart surgery or live with a heart condition by teaching them to exercise safely.

* To donate to the appeal, readers can give in various different ways:

* Visit

* Call 0113 234 7474.

* Post a cheque, made payable to Heart Research UK, to Heart Research UK, Suite 12D, Joseph’s Well, Leeds, LS3 1AB.

* Text HRUK17 and the amount you wish to give, such as £10, to 70070.