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Peter John Ryan

Former consultant surgeon St Vincent’s Hospital, Melbourne (b Shepparton, Victoria, 1925; q Melbourne University 1948; MS, FRCS, FRACS, FISA (Hon), OAM), died from cancer on 3 June 2002.

Peter Ryan was a man of many talents: he was a technically brilliant surgeon, a medical leader and innovator, a great teacher, a keen researcher, and an internationalist who did much to bring Australian surgery to the world. After surgical training at St Vincent’s Hospital, in 1954 Peter served in Korea and Japan with the British Commonwealth Forces in a MASH-type field ambulance. He sat his FRCS examinations in London later that year, followed by several extremely busy but happy years as senior surgical registrar in Leicester. His consultant at the Leicester General Hospital, Mr T M J d’Offay, was the epitome of an English surgeon and served as a model for Peter for the rest of his life, not least in his fondness for expensive English cars!

Peter returned to Australia in 1957 and soon obtained a surgical position at St Vincent’s, where he remained until his retirement from public hospital work in 1990. He was appointed head of his unit in 1972 and was associate professor in surgery at Melbourne University. Peter was left handed but wrote with his right hand and his virtual ambidextrousness added to his great surgical skill; he hardly required an assistant. Trained as a general surgeon and an expert in thyroid and breast surgery, early in his career Peter became interested in the emerging specialty of colorectal surgery. He was one of the pioneers of colorectal surgery in Australia, establishing the first colorectal clinic in Melbourne at St Vincent’s in 1978 and in 1980 hosting the annual conference of the International Society of University Colon and Rectal Surgeons. Peter was president of the ISUCRS in 1987-8. He did much surgical research, publishing more than 50 papers in his lifetime, and had a special interest in diverticular disease. He was the first to advocate immediate resection (with anastomosis) in selected cases of diverticular perforation and his Hunterian professorial lecture on 2 September 1986 was entitled "Two Kinds of Diverticular Disease."

Peter had a passion for teaching and his surgical tutorials were illustrated by his vivid cross-sectional drawings—years before the advent of computed tomography. He had a gift for explaining complicated topics and his A Very Small Textbook of Surgery (1988), a superb précis of the essentials of surgery, has helped many students and young doctors. This book has been translated into Mandarin and Indonesian.

Peter had a lifelong interest in Asia and a determination to engage medically with these countries. During the Vietnam war Australia sent civilian surgical teams to Asia and Peter led the first St Vincent’s team to Long Xuyen in 1965. His time in Vietnam was not without danger—years later he learned that the team’s cook and other staff were members of the Viet Cong!—but it was invaluable experience and much good was done by the teams, treating patients, improving facilities, and training staff. He later lectured in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Japan, and set up exchange programs at St Vincent’s for Japanese and Indonesian surgeons, many of whom became close personal friends. He was the first honorary fellow of the Indonesian Surgical Association. Peter believed that everyone was entitled to the best medical care available and for many years was consultant surgeon to the Aboriginal Health Centre in Melbourne. He helped set up a theatre for endoscopy procedures at the AHS, which sadly has never been used.

In 1970 the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons established the Road Trauma Committee in response to the increasing epidemic of road trauma. Peter was one of the main instigators, and a founding member of this committee, which successfully advocated for compulsory seatbelts, minimal blood alcohol levels of drivers, special child restraints in cars, and other lifesaving measures. He was also a member of the subsequent RACS committee that examines road deaths and recommends improvements in the management of road trauma patients. On Australia Day this year Peter was awarded the Order of Australia Medal for his services to road trauma and colorectal surgery.

Peter was a brilliant, magnanimous man who inspired many with his energy, enthusiasm, and wit. In 1969, when on a tour with fledgling Australian colorectal surgeons to clinics in America, he was mistaken for an Englishman. Without missing a beat Peter replied, "Like you, sir, we speak English and like you, sir, we are not English." Though an Anglophile, a great admirer of the work ethic and positivism of America, and champion for different cultures, Peter was always a passionate Australian who believed that Australia could be the "brave new world" where ancient and modern cultures could co-exist and synthesize to form a dynamic society of tolerance and peace. The current Australian government, with its anti-republican and anti-asylum seeker policies, disappointed him greatly.

Peter had many interests outside medicine—especially literature, music, cinema, history and sciences. When he had a stroke in 1995, and was unable to continue operating, he had time to read more, listen to classical music, and write. Peter bore his final illness with great stoicism and faith. He is missed by all who knew him, not least his wife of 50 years, Margery and his 10 children, three of whom are doctors. [Rowena Ryan]