Professor Ryan – ambassador for ACTAsia’s work and an advocate for compassion

‘All the documents that ACTAsia produce are wonderful. They express what I think are the most valuable aspects of humaneness and I wish everybody was reading them.’

Professor Terence Ryan

ACTAsia is honoured to introduce Professor Terence Ryan to our series of Success Stories. Professor Ryan has enjoyed immense success in his medical career and is a huge advocate of ACTAsia’s pioneering work. Professor Ryan is on the UK ACTAsia Board of Governors and is a valued Trustee and long-term supporter of the charity.

The link between a dermatological professor from Oxford University and ACTAsia’s work is perhaps not an obvious one but it is a link that is hugely beneficial to our work.

By way of introduction, Professor Ryan is an Emeritus Fellow of Green Templeton College and Emeritus Professor of Dermatology, University of Oxford and Oxford Brookes University. He is Honorary President of the International Society of Dermatology and Past Chairman of the International Foundation of Dermatology. He has written around 700 publications on dermatology, public health, skin blood supply and lymphatics. 

Overcoming dyslexia to study at Oxford University

Born in 1932, Professor Ryan’s schooling was interrupted by the Second World War. His parents were in the armed services and they moved around a lot. As a child he recalls making medicines out of nettles and whitewash and he was labelled as a ‘future doctor’ from a very early age. Professor Ryan struggled with dyslexia as a student, but in that era, little was known about the condition. Battling with the learning difficulty, he once sat an exam eleven times before passing – demonstrating incredible determination and resilience. His schooling didn’t even include the three sciences of chemistry, biology and physics so he had to study these at a later date in order be accepted into Oxford University.

Professor Ryan and Guru Ramdev
Professor Ryan and Guru Ramdev on the topic of managing limb swelling through Yoga

Specialising in Dermatology

After a short stint as an Ear Nose and Throat consultant with the British Army, Professor Ryan was drawn to the study of dermatology. He felt that at the time it was very generalised and that it could introduce him to all branches of medicine. As Professor Ryan explains: ‘Skin is a manifestation of all the other organs.’ He found this area of specialism the most interesting and diverse. Perhaps as a result of his dyslexia, Professor Ryan was labelled as a ‘lateral thinker’ and soon found himself in London specialising in lymphatic work in the laboratories. 

Leprosy, Isolation and Covid

Professor Ryan’s unit soon started to focus on leprosy and developing drugs to treat it. This breakthrough meant that hospitals were able to free up huge numbers of beds as isolation wards became a thing of the past.  During his time treating leprosy, Professor Ryan would visit centres on remote mountain sides and see the impact that the isolation was having on the patients. Although leprosy seems very removed from today’s world, it has striking similarities with the covid pandemic. The rules regarding social distancing and isolation that were experienced globally in the period was something lepers had to endure for centuries as they were banished to colonies on the outskirts of villages and towns. 

To solve the loss of self-esteem and isolation, Professor Ryan encouraged charities to give goats to those affected by leprosy. It gave those affected by leprosy something to care for and encouraged friendship and awareness of other humans, animals and the environment.

Professor Ryan and ACTAsia’s shared values

According to Professor Ryan: ‘The most important feature of care is friendship, sympathy, empathy and compassion.’ He goes on to say that: ‘the vital role of friendship is akin to Esprit de Coeur demonstrated at the Olympics or camaraderie as experienced in the army which enables soldiers to manage hard training’. Indeed, Professor Ryan is currently mentoring two studies that explore how friendship can impact on health and wellbeing. Both programmes centre on the principles of William Osler, who maintained that science (a care technology) and humanity (a care attitude) must work together holistically, and they demonstrate that friendliness can be just as therapeutic as clinical medicine.

Professor Ryan’s work in the importance of friendship and compassion is at the heart of ACTAsia’s Caring for Life educational work. ACTAsia’s vision is for: ‘A Compassionate world for animals, people and the environment’, as we appreciate that these core values play a vital role in global health. 

ACTAsia’s Caring for Life (CFL) educationprogramme aims to help Asian children, aged between 6 and 12 years old. Taught over six years and based on UNESCO’s Four Pillars of Education, the programme teaches Asian children that all living things are interdependent and that the concept of One Health only comes from caring for all. ACTAsia’s Caring for Life (CFL) education for children addresses the environment in its lesson plans exploring the web of life, sentient beings and how our choices may positively or negatively influence the environment. The lessons are interactive and involve role play and collaborative learning. In this way we aspire to create a new generation of critical thinkers who will be inspired to take positive actions which will in turn will have a positive impact on the environment. 

Promoting friendship and compassion to address the challenges we face

Professor Ryan is pleased to see that notable publications such as The Lancet and The Economist are also looking into loneliness and the impact it has on well-being especially in light of the pandemic. He goes on to comment that: “The Surgeon General of America has said that 50% of Americans are depressed and has emphasised the issue of loneliness. Indeed, senior academic institutes are saying that the single most important factor for health and well-being is friendship.”

Much of ACTAsia’s work is focused on China and Professor Ryan is aware that the issue of loneliness and health is a major concern for the continent. He reflects that it is hard for children in China: “Asian children have less chance to have pets as companion animals are not common and many don’t even have teddy bears to talk to.” For adults, loneliness is also an issue as a result of the previous one child policy as many of these children leave rural areas to the city for work and leave behind their families.  As Professor Ryan states: “The disconnect between humans and the environment is at the greatest that is has ever been.” 

How cruelty impacts Immunity

Professor Ryan is a huge proponent of the One Health concept that is at the heart of ACTAsia’s work. CEO and founder Pei Su, has spoken about the concept of One Health at United Nations summits to an international audience.  One Health is an approach that recognises that the health of people is closely connected to the health of animals and our shared environment. As Professor Ryan states: “When there is cruelty, your resistance to infection and immunity becomes damaged.” He has seen this in his work with leprosy where the cruelty of isolation has impacted recovery. 

This is also very much evidenced in factory farming and fur farming when animals are kept in cruel conditions. This leads to animals being unable to fight infection and therefore the animal’s health suffers. This has been evidenced with the covid pandemic. As Professor Ryan comments: “If there weren’t sick frightened animals in the market in Wuhan, it would have been less likely that the animals would have contracted infections and spread it.” He goes on to say: “We regularly witness pandemics amongst chickens. It’s the imprisoned chickens that spread disease to normal birdlife.” 

Dangers of Fur Farming in China

The human health risks of fur farming were clearly demonstrated by Denmark’s culling of its entire population of 17 million mink in 2020 due to the COVID pandemic. As Professor Ryan states: “We need to promote equivalent of friendship towards animals.” Professor Ryan emphasises the need to address the fur trade in China in order to tackle animal health and therefore the One Health concept. Professor Ryan has many links with China and is very interested in the continent having signed a contract with China to teach the barefoot village doctors in 2002. He has had many academic links with China through his leprosy work and hugely values ACTAsia’s work in raising awareness about the dangers of fur and factory farming on our global health. 

Professor Ryan surrounded by a distinguished crowd while discussing limb swelling in a clinic in Kerala

What next for Professor Ryan

ACTAsia could not be more grateful to Professor Ryan for his incredible knowledge, support and expertise that he brings to ACTAsia. The cross over between his pioneering medical studies and ACTAsia’s educational work is hugely important and we are thrilled that he is part of our Board of Governors. Professor Ryan will soon be releasing a book about his medical achievements. He is also planning to travel to India with family to show them the Bill Gates Centres of Excellence that he helped to found through his work with lymphedema. We look forward to hearing about Professor Ryan’s next adventures!