Sir Murray Brennan, GNZM

Knight grand companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit, for services to medicine

Ask Sir Murray Brennan about an esteemed medical career that has now been honoured with a knighthood and luck is a recurring theme.

A surgeon and researcher based in New York, the 74-year-old's clinical trials have produced major findings in the management of patients with soft tissue sarcomas and pancreatic cancer.

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He has helped create the world's largest database of sarcoma patients and developed a computer programme that will help doctors predict patients' response to treatments and chances of surviving.

Sir Murray has been recognised for his life's work with one of the country's most senior honours - an appointment as a knight grand companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the New Year Honours.

The appointments are limited to a maximum of 30 living people at one time.

Sir Murray's work has been underpinned by his decision long ago to study mathematics as well as medicine at the University of Otago.

"It turned out to be a very fortuitous decision because much of what I've done has been related to applying statistics and mathematics to medicine, which in the early 70s was a most unusual thing," said Sir Murray.

"Now it's very common and there's a whole field called evidence-based medicine. But I just had a lucky break - a culmination of two interests that proved to be very fortuitous ... it turned out to be remarkably good for me."

More fortune came, paradoxically, after his application for a Rhodes Scholarship to the University of Oxford was unsuccessful.

While he was a well-rounded candidate - playing representative rugby for Otago alongside future All Blacks including Chris Laidlaw - Sir Murray said his grades meant the rejection was appropriate.

The "consolation prize" was a three-month Chancellor's Scholarship trip to the United States - an eye-opening course that proved life- changing.

"I realised that, gee, for what I wanted to do the US was probably a better choice than the UK. But for that, I may well have certainly done something very different."

Sir Murray has lived in the US since 1970. He was chairman of the surgery department at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre in New York - the world's oldest and largest specialist cancer institution - for 21 years until 2006.

Still living Stateside and helping oversee international programmes at Sloan Kettering, Sir Murray is currently holidaying in Queenstown with his wife Susan, four children and grandchildren.

Sir Murray's honours citation states that he has been instrumental in raising funds and creating opportunities for medical research by New Zealanders, both here and in the US.

He has authored or co-authored more than 1000 publications in his field, and served on the editorial boards of 30 specialist journals, including the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Surgery since 1985.

Cancer research was at an "incredibly exciting time", Sir Murray said, where many cancers would be able to be treated as non-lethal chronic diseases.

"It will all be knowledge-based - because we'll understand which tumour will respond to which drug ... which person will get a cancer.

"It has taken a long time for people to understand that cancer is not one but probably a thousand diseases ... I would say that the idea of a magic bullet does not exist."