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Biographical entry Ong, Guan Bee (1921 - 2004)

PSM 1979; OBE 1966; MRCS and FRCS 1952; MB BS Hong Kong 1947; MD Shanghai 1946; DSc Hong Kong 1979; LRCP 1952; FRSC Edinburgh 1952; FACS 1958; FRACS 1967; FRS Edinburgh 1974; Hon DSc Hong Kong 1980.

Born
29 September 1921
Kuching, Sarawak
Died
10 January 2004
Occupation
General surgeon

Details

Guan Bee Ong, or ‘G B’ as he was known to his many friends and colleagues throughout the world, was a pioneering surgeon in Hong Kong. In the many tributes following his death, he was described as “a giant among surgeons”, “a craftsman, innovator and statesman” and “a far-sighted and dynamic leader”. He was born into a traditional Chinese family in Kuching, Sarawak, on 29 September 1921. After schooling in Singapore, he intended to become an electric engineer, but his father suggested medicine.

He was turned away from Singapore Medical College in April 1940 and was unable to go to Europe to study because of the second world war, so he went to Hong Kong University. Here his studies were interrupted by the Japanese invasion in April 1941. Together with several other students, he sneaked into China, making a hazardous journey on foot to Chungking, where he resumed his studies at Shanghai Medical School. He eventually graduated with his MD. After the war, he returned to Hong Kong, where he obtained his MB BS in 1947. For the next ten years he honed his skills, both locally and internationally, training in the UK, where he gained the FRCS diplomas of both the English and Edinburgh Royal Colleges. In 1956 he was awarded the Harkness Commonwealth University fellowship to study in the USA at the Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard University in Boston and the Bellevue Hospital in New York City.

On his return he became surgeon in charge of Kowloon Hospital until 1963, when he was appointed to the chair of surgery at the University of Hong Kong, the first ethnic Chinese to hold this post. The department was poorly equipped, had a budget of $1,000, no operating facilities and 96 empty and unused surgical beds. The contrast with the magnificent facilities in that department today is a tribute to G B’s vision, determination and ability to achieve his goals.

He quickly developed a reputation as a master surgeon, his repertoire encompassing the full gambit of surgical specialties, initially including neurosurgery and cardiac surgery. Natural technical brilliance allowed him to become a courageous and innovative surgeon in the biliary tract, the liver, reconstruction of the oesophagus and the urinary bladder using colon and stomach, in the surgical management of oral and pharyngeal cancers and the transphenoidal approach to the surgery of the pituitary gland, to name but a few procedures. Twice a week, on Wednesday and Saturday, this diminutive figure would sweep through the wards at Queen Mary Hospital like Napoleon leading the Grande Armee.

Inspiring a generation of young surgeons to promote surgical specialties to the highest standards, he was recognised as a perfectionist, an extremely strict disciplinarian and a marvellous teacher. According to his successor John Wong, he managed to “cultivate a spirit of original research and encourage innovations in surgery”, in many ways unusual for an academic. He published more than 250 papers and ten books and monographs, many using work performed by his trainees whom he encouraged to maintain high standards. Becoming emeritus professor of surgery after his retirement in 1982, G B continued in a busy private practice.

G B loved to travel and was elected to the James IV Association of Surgeons travelling professorship in 1967, was a governor of the American Association of Surgeons from 1974 to 1979 and was President of the International Society of Surgery from 1983 to 1985. He received the gold medal from the College of Surgeons of Malaysia, the Abraham Colles medal from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and was awarded numerous honorary fellowships by a host of surgical colleges throughout the world. In 1979 he was awarded the PSM, the equivalent of a knighthood, by the King of Malaysia.

His connection with the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh was particularly strong, and receipt of the first John Bruce gold medal in 1970 was a particular pleasure, as was his appointment as Regent to the College in 1998. In 2001 he paid his last visit to that College to receive the award of the Pehin Aziz medal.

G B spearheaded the introduction of surgical fellowship examinations in Hong Kong, first with the Edinburgh College and then other Royal Colleges, as early as the mid sixties. He was a Hunterian professor of the College and a Moynihan lecturer in 1974.

He married Christina Chow in 1950 and they had six children – Patricia, Peter, Michelle, Josephine, Catherine and Caroline. He married for a second time, to Paula, and they had two children – Elizabeth and Michael. He died on 10 January 2004 after battling with liver cancer since 1999. Ironically, he had carried out extensive research into this disease during his long career.

Sources used to compile this entry: [BMJ 2004 328 771, with portrait; Surgeons News RCS (Edinburgh) 2004 3 79-83, with portraits; Newsletter of the Department of Surgery, University of Hong Kong Medical Centre February 2004 8 1-4, with portraits; The University of Hong Kong Medical Faculty News 2004 9 2-5, with portraits].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England