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An address on the Freemasons' Fund for Surgical Research

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Quarterly Communication

10 June 2015 
An address on The Freemasons' Fund for Surgical Research by RW Bro JAH West, PJGW

MW Pro Grand Master and brethren, thank you MW Pro Grand Master for allowing me to speak about the history and achievements of the Freemasons’ Fund for Surgical Research, of which I am the Chairman of Trustees.

I have some hesitancy in speaking of the fund under its new title as it was formerly known as the Grand Lodge 250th Anniversary Fund and this is where its origins lie.

In 1967, in partial commemoration of the 250th anniversary of the foundation of Grand Lodge, every Freemason in England and Wales was invited to contribute at least £1 to create an endowment for the fund. The members of all bar four lodges did contribute and a sum in excess of £580,000 was raised. This money was used to create the first masonic charity, with exclusively non-masonic objectives. The objects of the charity were (and remain) 'to further, in conjunction with the Royal College of Surgeons, research in the science of surgery.'

The MW Grand Master is the Patron of the fund and has the power of appointing the trustees. 

The longer serving brethren amongst you may be interested to know that the first trustees, all eminent Freemasons of their day, were Sir Arthur Porritt (as he then was), Sir Reginald Goff, Alexander Frere, Frank Douglas, Jeremy Pemberton, Peter Studd and Alan Hunt, two of whom were surgeons and it is this balance of medical expertise that we try to preserve today.

I was appointed a trustee in 1984 (over 30 years ago), by which time Jeremy Pemberton was Chairman and Lord Porritt was still a trustee. 

The fund’s trust deed stipulates that there shall be no more than seven trustees, the majority of whom must be Freemasons. In practice no non-mason has ever been appointed a trustee

In the first years, 1967/8, the fund contributed £25,000 to the Royal College of Surgeons and this funded the first three Freemasons’ surgical research fellowships, one dental research fellowship and a grant towards the library, to assist in the research process. Annual grants were made in all subsequent years and, by last year, total grants of over £4.4m had been made, that for 2014 being in the sum of £135,000, which was credited to 3 Freemasons’ fellowships. Year in, year out, the fund is the largest contributor towards fellowships, although, occasionally, the college receives a larger one off donation.

Again, by 2014, the capital value of the fund had grown to around £3.5m but, as the original trust deed had specifically excluded the spending of capital, and as income had not grown at the same rate as capital appreciation, the trustees requested the Charity Commission to authorise the adoption of a total return policy, thus allowing present research fellows to enjoy the benefit of increased grants. The total return policy now allows the trustees to augment the income but subject to strict limits, permitting no more than 5% per annum, of the capital value of the fund to be distributed, whether by way of income or capital appreciation. In practice, over the past two years, no more than 3.5% has been distributed and this is well within the permitted figure. In all these matters, the trustees are advised by Cazenoves, as investment managers and by Dixon Wilson, as accountants.

Since the formation of the fund, it has been tacitly understood that the trustees would not engage in fundraising, as this was seen to conflict with the fundraising efforts of the four major masonic charities and the festival system.

However, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the formation of Supreme Grand Chapter in 2013, an appeal had been launched by the Royal Arch, with the object of 'helping to fund the Royal College of Surgeons research fellowship scheme.' The appeal literature specified a target of raising a minimum of £10 plus gift aid from every Royal Arch companion of whom there are 86,000 in England and Wales, thus anticipating a minimum of around £1m to be raised.

In support of the Royal Arch appeal, the college mounted a road show, visiting many Provinces and individual chapters, where one or more research fellows would speak in support of the appeal, in general, and of their individual research projects in particular.

This involved a huge amount of work by the college and I must express my thanks, in particular, to Martyn Coomer, whose task it is to ensure that the highly qualified research fellows can deliver a talk in non-medical English, sufficient to be understood by the layman. He achieves this feat with consummate skill. To illustrate his expertise, a presentation was made to a meeting of Freemasons, under the heading of 'Delineating the role of integrins in the repair and regeneration of the human vestibular system'. Apart from any medics present, I defy most of you to recognize that this was research into dizziness!

More about the Fellowship Scheme, shortly, except to say that Freemasonry has been the beneficiary of the road shows, in that at least two research fellows have been initiated into the Craft, having previously had no knowledge of it, but, having met with members, had formed 'a favourable opinion preconceived of the institution.'

When the appeal concluded, the staggering amount of £2.5m had been raised and I had previously suggested that, as the objects of the appeal were identical to those of the 1967 fund, it would be sensible for the appeal monies to be transferred to the fund and to be managed as one. I am delighted to say that Supreme Grand Chapter agreed to this course and, in future, the fund trustees will award fellowships on behalf of Grand Lodge and Grand Chapter in the proportion of 3:2.

During the appeal, the Province of Northumberland raised about £50,000 which they donated directly to the college and this, together with other direct donations from individual chapters, has funded the first Royal Arch Fellowship. This was awarded to a research fellow at the Medical School, in Newcastle, to undertake a urology project, in connection with the narrowing of the urinary channel and looking at corrective treatments.

At the conclusion of the appeal, it was decided to change the name of the fund from 'the Grand Lodge 250th Anniversary Fund' to 'The Freemasons’ Fund for Surgical Research' as this more accurately reflected the nature of the fund, going forward.

At a very recent meeting of the trustees, it was noted that the investment portfolio of the enlarged fund was valued at £6.5m (up from £6.25m, when the new money was introduced in January 2014) and the estimated annual income would be £186,000, a yield of 2.9%. It was agreed that the current year’s grant to the college should be £220,000 (a total return yield of under 3.5%), sufficient to be allocated four fellowships to be attributed equally between Grand Lodge and the Royal Arch. 

So much for history and finance. What is the process for selecting Freemason Research Fellows.

Prior to 1993, the college had a number of basic science departments, onsite, at their headquarter building in Lincoln's Inn Fields and, whilst research grants were awarded, there was no formal scheme in place. Our annual grant would be applied not only towards fellowships, but also in the purchase of essential pieces of medical equipment and the library.

In 1993 the college established its formal Surgical Research Fellowship Scheme, to which our fund has been contributing annually. Currently, the college receives applications from some 120 prospective, one-year, research fellows. The applicants are all qualified doctors who have elected to become surgeons. They will be members of the college, having passed the membership exams, for which the current pass rate is only 36%.

Ultimately the research fellows will hope to become consultants and their fellowship will be especially helpful for those who wish to become academic surgeons. Typically, academic surgeons will become professors or senior lecturers in medical schools, attached to National Health Service hospitals, where they will operate and run clinics, whilst teaching and continuing their research.

The amount of fellowships awarded depends on the funds available from all the supporters of the scheme (of whom there are about 15) but, typically about 20 are awarded each year. The process for the applicants is rigorous, consisting of a written application, setting out details of the proposed project and justifying, in medical terms, the reason for the research to be undertaken.

In particular, patient benefit is a key criteria. This aims to ensure that the research is not light years away from having a translational application for the benefit of patients.

Note is also taken of the potential of each applicant and the environment in which the research will take place. All applications are considered by a committee of the college, which reduces the number of possible researchers to be funded by about two thirds. The remaining one third (typically between 40 and 50) are called to attend a poster viva, at which each is asked to show that he or she is fully conversant with their project, work on which they may well have already been engaged in their overall medical training.

At the end of the assessment process, the college matches potential awards within the funds available. At this stage about 20 research projects will certainly be funded and the sponsors are then invited to choose those projects which particularly resonate with them. In the case of the Freemasons fund, our trustees have an annual meeting with representatives of the college, at which we are presented with a choice of about six projects, from which to select three (or, going forward, four). The trustees seek to select projects in different specialties, but it has to be said that male dominant conditions usually receive favourable consideration.

The following gives a flavour of the research projects funded, by Freemasons, in recent years:


Cancer, whether pancreatic, prostate, colorectal or oral and laryngeal, selecting viruses to infect and destroy tumour cells, using fiber optics to detect precancerous lesions in the oesophagus, developing a novel visualisation technique using magnetic resonance imaging to detect brain tumours

Kidney failure in patients undergoing heart surgery, looking to improve the long term outcomes of transplanted organs and, although in early stages, to build a kidney for transplantation in a laboratory, using stem cells.

Improving the outcomes of extremely premature babies who suffer brain hemorrhages.

From the above sample, you will understand that it is essential to have medical expertise amongst the trustees. Currently we have RW Bro Lord Ribeiro, PJGW, a Past President of the College and, subject to approval by the Grand Master, we are hoping, very shortly, to appoint another former member of the Council of the College, to replace W Bro David Rosin, who is now permanently based abroad.

At the annual meeting with the college the trustees not only decide on the prospective fellows, but also receive oral reports from those of the previous year, outlining, in plain English(!), the stage which has been reached by their research and whether it is ongoing, with funding outside the college. 

The 2013 Royal Arch Appeal has highlighted the work of the fund and it is hoped shortly to create a website, further to educate both Freemasons and others as to what the fund has, and hopes to, achieve.

I hope, MW Pro Grand Master and brethren, that this has given you some insight into the valuable research facilitated by the college and the significant role played by Freemasonry. In a very recent letter to me, from the President of the College, thanking for the current year’s grant, she says: 'This significantly increased grant is very much appreciated and can only enhance the very real friendship and bonds that exist between our respective organisations.'