Sverre Lie died peacefully at the age of 85 on March 8th 2023 at his home in Oslo surrounded by his family. He was one of the first paediatric oncologists in Norway and in 1982 was a founder member and later President of NOPHO, which covered all five Nordic countries. He joined SIOP in the 1970s and became Treasurer for four years (1988-92) then President (1996-99). In 2004 he was the host for the 36th annual SIOP meeting in Oslo.
He was born in Oslo in 1938 but at the age of 4 moved to Sulitjelma in the far north of the country. He returned to Oslo after the war where he was educated, graduating from Oslo University in 1966 adding a PhD in molecular genetics in 1966. Genetics was his first interest and he spent time with the world famous geneticist Victor McCusick in Baltimore. He had the choice of pursuing a career in genetics or going into the clinic. Both were very exciting areas with amazing new developments in each area. He chose to pursue paediatrics and then paediatric oncology. Along the way he met Kari Kveim , a medical student, in the hospital canteen. She was the daughter of Morten Kveim who in 1941, developed the Kveim test for sarcoidosis. Sverre and Kari married in December 1967 and spent their honeymoon in Jordan where they both had their first experience of caring for children in a developing country.
As a paediatric oncologist he took a special interest in acute myeloid leukaemia which had not responded as well as ALL when the chemotherapy revolution came along. He and his colleagues took a different approach and along with his colleagues in NOPHO they established a new standard of treatment which remains the basis of current treatment worldwide.
The long term outcomes of these trials were published in Leukaemia in 2005 and are still regularly cited.
He always had an eye on what could be done for children with cancer in less well developed parts of the world where there was usually little or no access to any treatment, At the annual SIOP meeting in Hannover in 1992, the host, Hansjorg Rheim, raised money to invite young doctors from the developing world. As a result of this the initiative, Paediatric Oncology in the Developing Countries (PODC) was born. When Sverre became President of SIOP he convened a small and very important meeting at the Nuffield Foundation in London where he brought together a few enthusiastic young doctors for mainly India and Africa. Sverre asked them what they wanted. The Indians said they wanted training for their young doctors. At medical school Sverre had been a classmate and friend of Gro Harlem Brundtland who had gone on to become Director General of WHO. Sverre used his undoubted charm and persuaded her to give a grant of 100,000$ to begin the PODC work.
In India this led to several workshops to develop training materials to train the trainers. This has been hugely successful and India and the surrounding countries now have networks of care providing excellent care for children with cancer. Sverre was especially pleased when he heard that one of the major hospitals had started a late effects clinic. That meant that children were surviving long enough to get late effects.
In Africa grants were given to develop a cost effective treatment for Burkitt’s lymphoma which had a dismal prognosis. In developed countries high survival rates could be achieved at a cost of around 45,000$. Peter Hesseling from South Africa developed slimmed down protocol which cost 50$ for each patient and survival rates of almost 40% were possible. This included supportive care. Again Sverre was delighted to hear that the spin off from the Malawi Burkitt’s protocol was that the hospital had improved their general paediatric care.
After retirement he continued his work in global health. He worked for ten years as a senior adviser in the Norwegian Directorate of Health, where he led the directorate’s committee for the UN’s Millennium Development Goals in global health.
In 2018-19 he was a special adviser on the health of refugees in Norway.
In 2001 he was appointed Knight, first class, of the Royal Norwegian Order of St Olav.
Like many Norwegians Sverre had a second home and his was in the Lofoten Islands way above the Arctic Circle. He spent most of his holidays there along with his four children and grandchildren to whom he was devoted and very proud.
He was a kind and gentle man who loved children. He was an excellent pianist and a highlight of the Oslo SIOP meeting was in The grand Opera House where he gave a virtuoso performance of Greig’s Wedding Breakfast at Troldhagen.
Bernward Zeller who succeeded Sverre as head of paediatric oncology in Oslo commented:
“Sverre was always supportive and encouraging. He was a real role model for me.”
Professor Yaddanapudi Ravindranath from Detroit, a very old friend of Sverre commented:
“A cherished highlight of Sverre Lie’s career as a SIOP member was his association with the pediatric oncologists in India. It all started with an impromptu meeting with Professor Meharban Singh in 1994 at a convention of heads of Pediatric societies worldwide. Dr Meharban Singh, then president of Indian Academy of Pediatrics (IAP) described the rather dismal outcome of children with cancer in India and asked Professor Lie if SIOP could help. An invitation was extended to Professor Lie to go to India for the next Indian Academy of Pediatrics (IAP) meeting in Ahmedabad (January 1995) to assess the situation. Sverre Lie, whom I came to know because of our common interest in AML, asked me to join him in this trip. We met half a dozen or so young Indian pediatricians focusing on oncology care- Purna Kurkure. Laxman Arya, Ram Marwaha, Bharat Agarwal and Anupam Sachdeva among others. The enthusiasm shown by the Indian group was palpable and Sverre Lie immediately committed full help from SIOP for educational and scientific support. This then was taken up by Prof Alan Craft the next incoming president of SIOP and Hans Peter Wagner who was heading the SIOP PODC initiatives. Bharat Agarwal, Ram Marwaha, Laxman Arya from the Indian side and the quartet of Sverre Lie, Alan Craft, Hans Peter Wagner and myself from SIOP formed the nucleus of the highly successful SIOP-INDIA project (!997) that in years to come shaped the progress of pediatric cancer care in India. They have achieved a high level of self sufficiency which was on full display at the recent annual paediatric haematology / oncology meeting in Delhi in November 2022.
In Sverre’s death, the Indian Pediatric community lost a beloved mentor and a dear friend.”
Sverre Lie with colleagues from the Indian paediatric oncology chapter of the Indian Academy of Paediatrics.
Kathy Pritchard Jones, immediate-past President of SIOP writes:
“Sverre was both an inspiration and a guiding hand to those who followed in his footsteps to support the work of the International Society of Paediatric Oncology (SIOP). Kathy, who was SIOP scientific committee chair during Sverre’s time organising the 2004 congress in Oslo, recalls how much she learnt from him about supporting the global childhood cancer community and the importance of friendship networks. The SIOP chamber music group formed in Sverre’s time was a lovely example of this. His lifetime commitment to improving outcomes for children with cancer and their families inspired her to run for SIOP president.”
“Everybody said it was an idiotic idea, with only one year left as a medical student. Personally I think it was one of the cleverest things I ever did.”
We believe that he was talking about his time at Gaza (Bernward Zeller provided the translation).