I've Just Had One of the Most Fortunate Lives Imaginable; He Couldn't Speak English until He Was Five and His Family Were Poor Polish Immigrants Who Settled in Cardiff. So How Did Leszek Borysiewicz Become a Top Doctor and 345th Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge? Abbie Wightwick Discovers More about His 'Chaotic' Career Plan

Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), March 31, 2012 | Go to article overview

I've Just Had One of the Most Fortunate Lives Imaginable; He Couldn't Speak English until He Was Five and His Family Were Poor Polish Immigrants Who Settled in Cardiff. So How Did Leszek Borysiewicz Become a Top Doctor and 345th Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge? Abbie Wightwick Discovers More about His 'Chaotic' Career Plan


It's not every day you get to discuss rugby with the Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University. But Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz is keen to share his joy when we get together the day after Wales' Grand Slam victory.

He was at the match, as he always tries to be when Wales plays at home, and is still glowing from the win when we meet for coffee among subdued France fans at a Cardiff hotel.

Sport is a great ice breaker and I start to chat about something I know little about because I'm slightly nervous meeting one of the greatest brains in Britain - especially when I start proceedings by accidentally throwing my pen at him. Not one for pomposity, airs or graces, Professor Borysiewicz laughs this off like a gentleman.

Like most truly intelligent people he's keen to communicate the truth as clearly as he can, which makes talking to him about his remarkable life a lot easier than I thought it might be.

As I'm no scientist, he carefully details the medical work he' s been involved in throughout his distinguished 40-year career as a physician, immunologist and scientific administrator.

Posts he's had include head of the Department of Medicine at the University of Wales, Deputy Rector of Imperial College London, head of the Medical Research Council and, as of 2010, the 345th vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge.

He was made a knight bachelor for services to vaccine research in 2001, holds the Royal Society of Medicine's Jephcott Medal, the Royal College of Physician's Moxon Trust Medal and is a member of 70 distinguished organisations.

But it's best to start at the beginning, the point at which it was far from clear he would go on to become one of the leading minds of his generation.

Born Leszek Krzysztof Borysiewicz in Cardiff in 1951, he's the son of a Polish immigrant bricklayer and didn't speak English until he was five. His parents, Jan and Zofia Helena, were World War II refugees. Captured by Russians in Eastern Poland at the outbreak of war they spent two years in Siberian camps.

When Hitler invaded in 1941, their son tells me that they "fled on foot" across Central Asia to Egypt where they joined the Polish Armed Forces in the East.

After the invasion of Italy, they chose to go to the UK rather than return to Poland in 1947.

It's an exciting tale, but growing up in a post-war Polish community in Cardiff the young Leszek knew such stories weren't unusual.

"It wasn't an uncommon experience at the time," he stresses, reeling off the list of places his parents stopped along the way, like Tehran, Baghdad and Jerusalem.

When their son was born at Cardiff St David's Hospital in 1951 Jan, who by then was a house builder, and Zofia Helena were determined he would get a good education. But living among a large Polish immigrant community in Llanrumney, Leszek and his sister Lilian had no need to speak English until they went to school.

And it is Bryn Hafod Primary and one teacher in particular, which Professor Borysiewicz credits with sparking his love of learning.

"Bryn Hafod was a very good school and I was taught English by the teachers there. I remember the most amazing teacher, Gerald Owen. He's still alive and we're still in touch. He lives in Treorchy.

"He was a brilliant man who inspired a whole generation of children from the estate I grew up on.

"He knew for many it was very important that we got an education and worked hard.

"The year he taught me, 1961, was a very memorable year for me."

At home, his parents continued to encourage their children so it was no surprise when he passed the eleven plus to go to Cardiff High, then a grammar school.

"My parents really believed in education.

"I think it's something you find with first generation immigrants.

"They were adamant that myself and my sister had chances. …

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I've Just Had One of the Most Fortunate Lives Imaginable; He Couldn't Speak English until He Was Five and His Family Were Poor Polish Immigrants Who Settled in Cardiff. So How Did Leszek Borysiewicz Become a Top Doctor and 345th Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge? Abbie Wightwick Discovers More about His 'Chaotic' Career Plan
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