Robert Acland

BMJ 2016; 352 doi: (Published 30 March 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;352:i1761
  1. Janet Fricker
  1. Hemel Hempstead
  1. janet.fricker1{at}

Pioneer of microsurgery who forged a second career in anatomical teaching

Robert “Bob” Acland, a British microsurgeon who later worked in the United States, was the innovator who developed the surgical instruments that enabled “free tissue transfer” to become a clinical reality. Acland’s sutures, needles, and clamps, which connected blood vessels together under a microscope, allowed facial and breast reconstruction to take place. After moving to Louisville, Kentucky, in the mid-1970s, he went on to train a generation of microsurgeons, wrote a highly acclaimed teaching manual on microsurgery, and produced Acland’s Video Atlas of Human Anatomy.1 Acland’s innovative three dimensional images, which are licensed to more than 215 institutions throughout the world, have transformed the way in which anatomy is taught in medical and dental schools.

“Through his meticulous approach, Bob developed the instruments that moved microsurgery from an experimental procedure to a routine operation that has benefited millions of patients worldwide,” said Gus McGrouther, a professor and plastic surgeon who worked with Acland at Canniesburn Hospital, near Glasgow, in the early 1970s. “Arguably Bob’s tools have changed the course of surgery more than any other development in the past 50 years.”

Gordon Tobin, emeritus chair of plastic surgery at the University of Louisville, added, “Bob was the consummate craftsman. He had a total fascination with the frontiers of technology, addressing the challenges with laser-like focus and unbridled enthusiasm.”

By all accounts Acland was a colourful character. “The sheer force of his personality resulted in a multitude of apocryphal stories, often making it hard to disentangle truth from fiction,” said McGrouther, now working at the Singapore General Hospital and NUS-Duke graduate medical school.

Acland’s individualism undoubtedly stemmed from his unorthodox patrician background. He was born in 1941, the middle of three sons of Sir Richard Thomas Dyke Acland, …

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