Sir Magdi Yacoub, Britain's leading heart surgeon, was at the centre of an argument on Tuesday night after he was forced to stop performing operations because of "ludicrous" retirement rules at his NHS trust.
The pioneering doctor, who was 66 last week, has been told by managers at Harefield Hospital, north-west London, that its guidelines bar surgeons from working beyond 65.
Department of Health guidelines allow senior consultants to continue working up to the age of 70 on rolling annual contracts and up to 72 with the approval of the General Medical Council. But executives at the Royal Brompton and Harefield NHS Trust told Sir Magdi that its regulations allowed them no discretion – even though he is considered to be at his peak by colleagues.
Mark Taylor, chief executive of the trust, said: "The trust has an absolute policy. There wasn't a discretion to exercise." A spokesman for the hospital added: "We have no doubts that Sir Magdi is a great heart surgeon. However, the trust has a clear policy concerning its surgical staff and they must retire at 65."
The Department of Health insisted it did not impose a retirement age on trusts and said it was vital that the health service's most experienced staff continued to work. A spokesman said: "There is no set retirement age for NHS staff. We recognise that qualified and experienced staff, such as Sir Magdi, have much to contribute to the NHS. We encourage trusts to consider flexible retirement options for their staff."
Sir Magdi, who has performed 1,500 heart and heart-and-lung transplants – more than any surgeon in the world – will continue in a research role at Harefield but his only operations are now likely to be carried out abroad for charity.
Sir Magdi said there was a point at which surgeons needed to retire, but he did not feel he had reached that point. Speaking on a television documentary last night, he added: "I don't think age is a paramount thing because in terms of experience it gives you an edge. You can act much quicker in response to a change but if you were younger, you would not."
Colleagues of Sir Magdi, who arrived at Harefield in 1969, said they found the age-based ban ludicrous for a man considered to be at the top of his profession. Dr Gavin Wright, a consultant anaesthetist who has worked alongside him, told the Discovery Channel programme: "The fact is Magdi is still one of the best surgeons around."
Sir Magdi, who admitted feeling "slightly resentful" about the matter, will continue to work as director of the Harefield Heart Science Centre.