Honorary degree for aid worker and former member of staff
Dr Denis Rutovitz will receive an honorary degree during summer graduations. He spoke to us about his work at the MRC Human Genetics Unit, aid convoys to war zones and his love of mountaineering.
Born in South Africa in 1928, Denis completed his first PhD in Cape Town. In 1956 he received a scholarship to study in the UK and completed his second PhD at the University of Cambridge in between spells of teaching at Berkeley and Manchester.
From mathematics to medicine
Whilst teaching, Denis heard about an opportunity within the MRC Human Genetics Unit (now part of IGMM) to lead a team in the new field of automated pattern recognition.
The aim was to create a system for antenatal diagnosis of foetal chromosome abnormalities using computer-assisted screening of cultured amniotic fluid slides.
It presented him with an exciting opportunity to apply mathematical methods and IT skills in a way that offered both practical benefit and intellectual challenge, and proved a career highlight.
Denis was appointed Assistant Director of the unit in 1977 and remained there until his retirement in 1993. He recalls his time there as being a wonderful experience with a great team.
In 1992, in response to the daily catalogue of horrors of the war in Bosnia, Denis and his wife Jeanne Bell founded the charity Edinburgh Direct Aid. For the first three years, Denis personally led the majority of their aid convoys.
War in Bosnia
EDA’s third convoy was to Sarajevo and it remains one of Denis’ most memorable from decades of humanitarian work.
He recalls how their party of 3 trucks finally arrived at Sarajevo main hospital on Christmas Eve following long negotiations with Serbian forces. The hospital was damaged and without mains electricity or water. The convoy delivered food, fuel and other supplies and most importantly brought a huge morale boost to those in Sarajevo.
The news that people from far away Scotland had made their way there through the siege, risking sniper fire and bombardment, soon spread. The appreciation of our presence and fellowship was palpable. It was an experience both humbling and wonderful in equal measure. It will always stay with me.
Tragedy and near miss
As the Bosnian convoys continued Denis recalls harsh winters and dangerous conditions in a hostile environment. Damage was mostly material but not always.
In June 1993, Christine Witcutt, an EDA volunteer from Wishaw, was killed by a sniper in one of a number of trucks which I was leading out of Sarajevo. This was a terrible blow to EDA, and a terrible responsibility for Jeanne and I to bear. But Christine’s husband’s Alan’s steadfastness and forbearance made it possible to continue.
Denis himself experienced a close call in 1994 when his convoy came under fire on a hillside outside Sarajevo. He was hit by a machine gun bullet, which entered his chest, but was deflected sufficiently by his flak jacket to miss vital organs. Another truck was also hit and went off the road, but the driver miraculously escaped.
The war in Bosnia came to an end in 1996. But the need for aid did not, and EDA continued to work there for six more years.
After Bosnia, and until the Syrian refugee crisis broke, EDA’s biggest action was in Kosovo delivering aid, building shelters and reconstruction on a massive scale.
Kosovo was followed by work in Sri Lanka (after the tsunami), Pakistan (after earthquake and floods), and Kenya (for AIDS orphans).
Helping Syrian refugees
EDA’s principal current efforts are for Syrian refugees in a Lebanese village near the border with Syria. There are 70,000 refugees and 35,000 Lebanese inhabitants in this location.
EDA is running a community and vocational training centre for both refugees and poor Lebanese, and also delivering considerable quantities of aid sent from Edinburgh.
Fireworks atop Mount Kenya
Adventuring into risky environments could be noted as a recurring aspect of Denis’ life and his love of mountaineering led him to climb extensively in the mountains of the Western Cape, California’s Sierra Nevada and Mount Kenya. Latterly this has morphed into much walking in the Scottish hills.
I love mountains perhaps because you have to focus your mind on very immediate things such as your next move or step. It allows you for a moment to forget the difficulties and complexities and awfulness of the world.
A particularly memorable expedition was the Mountain Club of Kenya’s “fireworks at midnight” party reaching the summit of Mount Kenya on the eve of Kenyan independence in December 1963.
In 2013 Denis returned to Mount Kenya for the fiftieth anniversary of independence. He is quick to state that he personally only made it to 14,000 feet this time, but that it was wonderful to be with old climbing companions, two of his sons, and the splendid new generation of young Kenyan climbers.
When Denis is awarded his honorary degree from the University of Edinburgh it will not be his first high profile recognition. In 1996 he was awarded an MBE and as with his upcoming honorary degree he modestly views it as something he received on the back of a larger team effort.
“It is most unexpected and I am of course delighted that the University of Edinburgh would think about me in this way. It seems to me to also be an acknowledgement by the University of the dedication of our volunteers and the wonderful support of the people of this city for the humanitarian project that is Edinburgh Direct Aid.”
Denis Rutovitz has variously and accurately been described as a modern day saint and a force of nature […] we are also honouring him as a scientist.”