AASLD 2005 distinguished achievement award to Dr. Jenny Heathcote


  • Potential conflict of interest: Nothing to report.

The wise man makes more opportunities than he finds.

—Francis Bacon, Of Ceremonies and Respects

It is said that an individual has reached iconic status when merely a first name suffices to identify that person. For example, the names “Madonna” and “Tiger” in the entertainment and sporting worlds, respectively, evoke instant recognition. In the world of hepatology, the name “Jenny” also unmistakably identifies a single individual. Bestowment of the AASLD Distinguished Achievement award to Jenny Heathcote solidifies what most hepatologists already know: she has achieved iconic status in our world.

Elizabeth Jane Lindsay Heathcote was very nearly Clarisa Mirabelle Trilby Katz. Her father, a German Jew, had settled in England to escape persecution, and in 1943 married Poppy Mary Heathcote Humphris. He took one of his wife's names to avoid being identified as a German in wartime England. Her mother proposed the alternative names mentioned above, but her father's preferences held sway.

Jenny characterizes herself as an “opportunist”—not in the negative sense of the word, but rather as someone who positively seizes the opportunities that fate and life periodically offer. She was generally an indifferent student during most of her childhood and young adulthood. During her first years as a student at the Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine in London, her scholastic record was mediocre. Indeed, when she applied for an elective with Dennis Burkitt in Uganda, the dean rejected her application with the rebuke, “We don't want you to represent the Royal Free abroad.” Jenny took this refusal not as a stinging rebuke, but instead as an opportunity to demonstrate her scholastic skills. By graduation, she was third in her class.

A chance conversation in a pub led to an opportunity that would change her life. Sheila Sherlock, then already an icon herself, accepted two interns (i.e., house officers) annually. One of Jenny's classmates, a talented jazz pianist, by virtue of his musical ability already had one position locked up, and suggested that she apply for the other. Jenny eventually was awarded the other position, sufficiently impressing Dame Sheila during the interview as a bright and “chatty sort of girl.” To say that Jenny seized this opportunity would be a vast understatement. During her 5.5 years with Sheila, she embarked on the paths she continues to follow. Jenny first-authored several important papers on the transmission of hepatitis B1–4 as well as primary biliary cirrhosis5 and intrahepatic cholestasis.6 To this day, she is one of those rare hepatologists recognized as an authority in two separate fields: viral hepatitis and autoimmune liver disease, especially primary biliary cirrhosis.

Other significant papers include the Canadian multicenter study of ursodeoxycholic acid in primary biliary cirrhosis,7 a widely cited meta-analysis of interferon treatment of hepatitis B,8 and the first characterization of antimitochondrial antibody-negative primary biliary cirrhosis.9 The last paper was rejected by HEPATOLOGY with the concise, unambiguous comment from the external referee: “rubbish!” Hepatologists will instantly recognize that only one person could have written such a review (hint: her initials were S. S.). More recently, three papers in 2005 deal with important aspects of fatigue in primary biliary cirrhosis,10 cognition in hepatitis C11 and asymptomatic autoimmune hepatitis.12 Jenny is excited by a recent paper demonstrating the crucial role of the hepatic USP18 gene in hepatitis C patients unresponsive to interferon.13 These important studies exemplify her approach to clinical research. She knows the literature intimately, especially the weaknesses or gaps in our knowledge base. Her great strength lies in the ability to conceive and design a study that addresses these gaps and tenaciously carry it through to completion. Moreover, Jenny does not consider a study finished until the results have appeared in print, so writing a clear, concise manuscript, quickly but not hurriedly, is as important to her as the other aspects of a project. This rigorous and tenacious approach to research should serve as a model to all academic physicians and researchers.

The Canadian and international communities have recognized her achievements with many awards. An incomplete list includes: the Canadian Liver Foundation Distinguished Service Award, the Canadian Association for Study of Liver Gold Medal, the Canadian Medical Association May Cohen Award for Women Mentors, the AASLD Sheila Sherlock Lectureship, the British Society of Gastroenterology Sherlock Lectureship, the Canadian Liver Foundation “Key to Life” Tribute, and the Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal. As the above list suggests, Jenny is now Canadian, having come to Toronto in 1979, and taken advantage of an opportunity to flourish in the New World.

Jenny is also a remarkable teacher, mentor, den mother, raconteur par excellence, ski buff, and operaphile. She is indefatigable and fearless. This attitude is exemplified by an incident that occurred during the 1976 AASLD congress in Chicago. A thief snatched her purse and ran off. Instead of passively accepting this misfortune, Jenny sprinted after him for several blocks, eventually cornering him in a men's washroom in a department store. Outside the door, she demanded the return of only her airline ticket and passport, but the tired and exasperated thief pleaded: “Lady, if I give you back your purse, will you leave me alone?”

She has won several teaching awards and is sought after as a lecturer at institutions and congresses on every continent. Jenny takes a keen interest in the career aspirations and successes of her current and former trainees. With obvious pride, she claims one of her fondest achievements is having published papers with over 70 different trainees. Indeed, in many ways the level of career nurturing and guidance that she provides for trainees under her supervision borders on the maternal. Ask about many of her papers and she is quick to credit a trainee first author. An ongoing project involves training the next generation of clinicians and researchers in viral hepatitis. This is the Canadian National Training Program in Hepatitis C, conceived and directed by Jenny. The program currently involves 8 trainees, 24 mentors/supervisors, and 9 Canadian institutions, with more to come.

An example of her generosity and compassion is her quasi-adopted family. One of her first patients in Toronto was a teenage Vietnamese refugee who was accompanied by his sister. They had arrived in Canada in a woebegone state only 2 days before Jenny, leaving their parents and family in Vietnam. She invited them to lunch that day, and then to Sunday dinner at her home. They came to dinner every Sunday thereafter and essentially, she has unofficially adopted them. Indeed, their children call Jenny “Grandma.” As physicians, we feel compassion for our patients; it is both our human nature and our duty. But how many of us have taken the next step and quasi-adopted any patients?

Jenny is a committed animal lover. She currently shares her home with two cats, and at times in the past many more. She kept one uremic cat on homemade dialysis for 4 years using nightly infusions of Ringer's lactate and normal saline. She is also fond of opera, particularly Wagner, and has donated generously to the Canadian Opera Company, allowing her a special reserved “named” seat at COC productions.

It is clear that not only does Jenny find and take advantage of opportunities, she also makes many opportunities—not just for herself, but for those around her as well. The words of Francis Bacon (gender-biased language notwithstanding) apply perfectly to her. The hepatology world could benefit from more “opportunists” like her. But there is only one Jenny. 1

Illustration 1.