Friday, October 15, 2010

Book Review - Weary - The Life of Sir Edward Dunlop by Sue Ebury

Behind great people are great stories. But, it's all in the writing as to how well the great person comes across. After reading Weary - The Life of Sir Edward Dunlop by Sue Ebury I am full of admiration for the man. He is certainly someone to be looked up to in terms of his compassion, drive to succeed, determination to survive and selflessness. This book describes his life in minute detail and is a captivating read although it does drag a bit during WWII. He's one of the most inspiring people I've ever read about.

I knew that Weary Dunlop was a doctor and that he was almost held in reverence in Australia. Here's what I didn't know about the man and what I learnt from the book.

Weary Dunlop was born in country Victoria. His parents did reasonably well on the land and he had an elder brother. His mother become terribly ill and mentally unstable due to an infection caught during childbirth due to lack of sanitation at the time. She recovered by the time he was about 18 months old but he'd been cared for by his aunts until that time and they doted on him. Weary wasn't a great student and only did what he had to. After completing school he took up an apprenticeship to become a pharmacist but at the end of his training he was unable to see himself spending the next 50 years standing behind a counter making and dispensing pills. His new hero was Sir Thomas Dunhill, who was also from country Victoria, studied pharmacy and then went on to become a great surgeon, and Weary's life paralleled his in many aspects. Weary studied medicine and achieved fantastic results. The initiation at Ormond College made me understand a lot of what professionals went through and why they have such great relationships for the rest of their lives.

Weary played rugby for Australia and was the first Victorian to represent his country. He had to decline a tour of South Africa due to his studies. When the studies were complete he travelled to England to try for acceptance into the Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons (FRCS) and he was one of 14 out of some 44 who were accepted. Following graduation and about a year of practicing in England WWII broke out. Weary was perhaps the only Australian who joined the 2nd Australian Imperial Force (AIF) without being in Australia but it took some determination for that to come about. Before leaving for England he had been dating Helen Ferguson. She had been unable to accompany Weary to England and stayed in Melbourne.

Weary became a captain in the army. He served in Greece, Palestine, Egypt and travelled much of the area. Most of him time was spent organising movements of sick troops and preparing for the construction of hospitals and supply of medicine and instruments. Unfortunately for Weary he was so adept at organising that they were loathe to release him to duties as a surgeon for which he longed. Later he went to Indonesia and was captured by the Japanese when he refused to abandon the hospital. Thus started some three years as a prisoner of war and at this stage he was a lieutenant colonel / colonel and the most senior officer although he was involved in the medical side of the army and not the troops.

The book drags a little during his war years and his early life and study coupled with later life make more interesting reading. Perhaps that is because of the attention to detail and the fact that he wasn't learning much in that period although he performed many heroic acts of courage by standing up to the Japanese. There wasn't as much personal development during that time. He was involved in the camp which built the bridge on the river Kwai in Thailand where the Japanese forced the prisoners to from Indonesia. Weary's skill for organising and surgery were evident and his camp suffered a much lower rate of mortality than other POW camps. He was instrumental in officers pooling their money to allow more nutritious food to be purchased for POWs and that undoubtedly kept hundreds more alive. During the war he became engaged to Helen but it wasn't until eight years after he'd left Australia, and he hadn't seen her in this time, that he returned and married her.

Post war Weary developed into an outstanding general surgeon who did great work with oesophageal cancer and much of it was pioneering. His family suffered from the fact that he was nearly forty before returning from the war and hadn't done much work as a surgeon, had lost the war years, had many young surgeons coming through and he had to make a name for himself. His hours were long and family life was almost non-existent. Sad in a way but it reveals the dedication that this man had to his learnings and fellow man. He was such a driven individual who never lost the yearning to travel and spent much of his latter years travelling the world attending the best clinics and hospitals observing surgery and giving lectures. He did tours of India, Sri Lanka and Thailand where he trained surgeons in those countries and gave freely of his time for his profession.

The end of Weary's life was tinged with sadness. Helen developed Alzheimer's disease and he could do nothing for her. His eyesight was failing and his driving, which had never been great, led to many accidents. His like of a drink undoubtedly had much to do with that. Perhaps he considered himself to be invincible and had such a high level of self-belief. I can imagine that. Even up to the time of his death, 10 days short of his 86th birthday, he was flitting about the country and internationally attending all sorts of committees and sharing his knowledge. Weary had been a driving force behind pensions for POWs and war widows. He never charged for surgery on POWs or servicemen following WWII. Weary wasn't a rich man because it wasn't wealth that drove him. He was dedicated to his profession first and foremost.

It's a fabulous book about a great man. Definitely read it.

Weary - The Life of Sir Edward Dunlop by Sue Ebury

P.S. Couple of passages that I wanted to include in the post but forgot in my haste to publish and get to work.

"It is better to wear out than to rust." - Professor George Grey-Turner
"Never operate on the man who seeks to make his will before he enters hospital." - Sir Gordon Gordon-Taylor
"One's calling to medicine comes before one's personal needs. Surgery has to take absolute precedence over everything else." - Weary Dunlop
"Almonds come to those who have no teeth" - old Chinese proverb


Ian said...

Sir Edward "Weary" Dunlop was certainly an outstanding man, and put the welfare of others before himself.

Hammy said...

Well said Ian.

Anonymous said...

What a true hero. Gil