The surgeon who must 'never be allowed to practise again'

For thousands of families devastated by cot death, Professor Dick van Velzen was the best hope of finding out why their babies died from the mysterious illness.

The Dutch pathologist declared when he arrived at Alder Hey Children's Hospital in 1988 as the world's leading cot death expert that children were "much too precious to die without making use of every single scrap of available information which could help the next child".

A little more than a decade later, the words would have a chilling resonance as it emerged that the bodies of more than 800 babies had been stripped of their tiny hearts, lungs, brains - even skin and tongues - and that the organs had been stockpiled by the Liverpool hospital.

Father-of-one Van Velzen, 51, who is regarded as a genius by colleagues, was identified as the pathologist responsible for post mortem examinations at Alder Hey between 1988 and 1995.

Overnight, his reputation came under the microscope and he was portrayed as a "body-snatcher" who carved up dead babies and stored their organs in jars.

Van Velzen, who suddenly found himself a figure of hate rather than hope among grieving parents, denied any wrongdoing, maintaining that he had dedicated his life to helping children.

He said he was shocked and devastated at being cast as a present-day Dr Frankenstein.

Van Velzen left the Netherlands to take up the chair of Foetal and Infant Pathology at the University of Liverpool - the first post of its kind in the country - in September 1988.

Based at Alder Hey, Europe's busiest children's hospital, his brief was to carry out post mortem examinations on youngsters who had died there.

His research into cot death was financed by a £250,000 five-year grant from the London-based Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths, with extra funding provided by the TSB Foundation, Liverpool Health Authority and the University of Liverpool.

At the time, van Velzen spoke of his wish to see a post mortem examination carried out in every single case, and he was a leader on a research project which suggested that more than half the cot deaths in Britain were linked to a respiratory virus caught by small children.

The pathologist left Alder Hey for the IWK Grace Hospital in Nova Scotia, Canada, in December 1995, but was dismissed after six months amid allegations of incompetence.

He then moved to Port of Spain Hospital in Trinidad.

But by December 1999, when the organs retention scandal broke and the Government ordered an independent inquiry, van Velzen was back in his homeland, working at the Westeinde Hospital in The Hague.

From there, he told the world's media that Alder Hey was aware of the existence of the stored organs - he had sent a detailed report to the hospital's management outlining the problem as far back as 1993, he said.

Van Velzen maintained the organs were not kept for research purposes, but were simply a backlog of unfinished work following post mortem examinations which mounted up because of staff shortages.

He sympathised with the parents of the children whose organs were removed and said the hospital should not have kept the organs for so long.

But he insisted that parents had signed consent forms for organ removal.

He told the Netherlands' NOS television channel: "I warned (Alder Hey) management from 1993 that from the ethical point of view it was a time-bomb.

"Now they are trying to describe me as a kind of Dr Frankenstein, just to get themselves off the hook.

"Obviously, I never removed organs without authorisation. I take my speciality seriously. The parents have been betrayed and consciously lined up against me by the hospital."

As the Alder Hey inquiry, led by Sir Michael Redfern, got under way behind closed doors last year, the furore surrounding van Velzen died down and he was able to continue his work.

But last September it emerged that Canadian police wanted to question him about the storage of children's body parts in a warehouse during his time at the IWK Grace Hospital.

Again he had to defend his reputation, saying the organs were given to him by doctors and families for research, and adding: "I could do without all of this."

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