A “living legend” is how renowned Vincentian surgeon and octogenarian Dr. A. Cecil Cyrus is often described by his colleagues and fellow citizens of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Of the many hats he’s worn during his long life—doctor, writer, orator, sportsman, horticulturist, humanitarian, philanthropist—Dr. Cyrus is also revered as a national hero for reforming health care and modernizing medical facilities in this developing archipelago nation in the Caribbean.
As the first Vincentian trained as a surgeon to ever practice in St. Vincent, Dr. Cyrus established another first when he opened the island’s first private hospital, in 1976, to serve all Vincentians, especially those living in its most impoverished communities.
Compassion,” he has often observed, “is the cornerstone of the medical practice.”
Compassion was the driving force that made him decide at the tender age of seven to become a doctor. Born in the village of Layou, St. Vincent, the eldest of nine children, Dr. Cyrus recalls the dismay he felt after witnessing how his friends and neighbors were treated by the town’s sole visiting doctor, who would see only the few who were able to pay the shilling he charged for his services while ignoring the suffering of those who couldn’t pay. The young Cecil vowed then and there to devote his life to helping the most vulnerable.
Attending local schools and excelling in the sciences, Dr. Cyrus later received his medical training at Queen’s University in Belfast, Ireland, and became a doctor in 1957. He returned to St. Vincent with his wife Kathryn, an Irish nurse he met during medical school, in 1963, and was a consultant surgeon at the Colonial Hospital, where he worked tirelessly for more than a decade to vastly improve the hospital’s meager facilities and patient care.
With diplomas in ophthalmology and obstetrics, Dr. Cyrus specialized in maternal health, eye surgeries, excisions and skin grafts, especially for patients with disfiguring tumors and ulcerations that are common in tropical environments. He continued this work after opening his own clinic, the Botanic Hospital, in 1976, where he continued for the next 25 years serving the healthcare needs of the island’s poorest residents.
Following his retirement in 2002, Dr. Cyrus transformed the Botanic Hospital into an educational medical museum that bears his name. Located on Leeward Highway just north of Kingstown, the museum, which is still open to visitors, houses thousands of his photographs and X-Rays depicting the patients and conditions he’s treated over the years. Also on display are surgical instruments, many of which he constructed himself from necessity, that he used in the thousands of life-transforming surgeries he performed on patients. The museum also leaves intact his surgery theater, along with a lush vegetable garden he has lovingly tended and an indoor court for squash — a sport he and his wife were passionate about and introduced to St. Vincent in the 1960s.
Dr. Cyrus is the author of numerous research papers and books, including a seminal textbook on the pathologies of tropical diseases, which was published in 1989. In more recent years, he also authored a two-volume autobiography that chronicles his childhood growing up in St. Vincent and his later years as a doctor attending underserved communities.
“My favourite patients are the very young and the very old,” Dr. Cyrus wrote in his
autobiography. “The former know only of living and have not yet learnt to fear, the latter
have lived long enough to have the easy courage and steadfast will to live on, and are
thus very trusting of their medical guardians.”
It is that trust which Dr. Cyrus, who celebrated his 88th birthday this past January, has honored and upheld throughout his illustrious career. A sought-after speaker, he recently shared his simple philosophy about the mission of a doctor during a white-coat ceremony for newly minted physicians on the island.
“Life is beautiful,” he said. “And to preserve it is beautiful.