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Biographical entry Sheldon, Donald Mervyn (1937 - 2007)

MRCS and FRCS 1968, MB BS Sydney 1960; FRACS 1964; LRCP 1968.

5 January 1937
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
16 March 2007
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
General surgeon


Don Sheldon was a surgeon at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney, specialising in gastro-intestinal surgery. He was born on 5 January 1937 in Sydney, the third of the four children of Margret and Mervyn Sheldon. His mother Margret had been a schoolteacher, while his father Mervyn was head of the biology department and vice principal at Sydney Teachers' College. Don was educated at Earlwood Primary School and Canterbury Boys' High School, where he was dux and vice captain in 1953, becoming an accomplished pianist, and playing cricket and tennis for the school. He then studied medicine at the University of Sydney, where he joined the 13th NSW National Service Battalion as a private soldier. He was a prosector in 1955, preparing a dissection of the lateral aspect of the knee joint which remains in the museum today.

After qualifying, Don completed junior posts at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney, where he became senior resident medical officer and demonstrator in anatomy. It was at this time he won the Gordon-Taylor memorial prize for the best candidate in the basic sciences part of the FRACS. He went on to become surgical registrar in 1963. While he was surgical registrar in thoracic surgery he was in charge of the Australian thoracic surgical team at Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, under Rowan Nicks and was a locum for the Royal Flying Doctor Service at Broken Hill. He would fly out to remote districts in an old Drover aeroplane, which would squirt oil over the windscreen.

He was appointed superintendent at the Royal Prince Alfred in 1966, and continued to provide a locum service while the only surgeon in Darwin was on six weeks leave. While doing this job he set up a surgical registrar post to which many trainees from the Prince Alfred rotated. He also harvested the cadaver kidneys for the first renal transplant done at the Prince Alfred with Shiel and James May.

In 1967 he became surgeon in charge of the 3rd Australian Surgical Aid Team which was invited by the Commonwealth Government to provide surgical services in Vung Tau, South Vietnam. His team, all of whom were volunteers, comprised two surgeons, an anaesthetist, a physician, an intern (on this occasion D K Baird), six nurses, a pathology technician and a radiographer. There he carried out much emergency surgery and also successfully delivered Siamese twins.

In 1968 he returned, having lost much weight, to Sydney as honorary surgeon to the Marrickville Hospital, and the following year was appointed to the staff of the Royal Prince Alfred. But in the same year Rodney Smith, who had met him as the McIlnath guest professor at the Royal Prince Alfred, invited Don to be his registrar at St George's as a British Commonwealth scholar. At St George's he worked on the management of complicated hepatobiliary conditions, especially surgical injuries to the bile duct, and took the opportunity to pass the FRCS.

Back at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, he specialised in upper gastro-intestinal surgery, becoming head of the department in 1986 where, together with George Ramsay-Stewart, he set up a total parenteral nutrition service and published many papers, including one which won a prize in Athens on liver resection for secondary bowel cancer.

He was a pioneer in the use of mucosal grafts and balloon dilatation for stenosis of the common bile duct, and was an early advocate of removal of the sloughed pancreatic tissue in acute necrotising pancreatitis, which until then had nearly always been fatal. In 1990 he acquired the instruments and introduced laparascopic methods for cholecystectomy.

For his publications he was awarded the Justin Fleming gold medal of the Australian Association of Surgeons. Other appointments and awards followed. He was awarded the Vietnam Logistics and Support medal in 1995, the Graham Coupland lecture and medal of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons in 1996, and the Active Service medal of 1997. In his College he was on the council and chairman of the board of continuing professional development, a tutor in surgery and an examiner for the University of Sydney. A keen freemason, he was provincial grand district master of the Grand United Lodge of New South Wales and chairman of the division of surgery of the New South Wales Masonic Hospital, later the New South Wales Private Hospital. He was active in medico-legal matters, a member of the review committee of the law of negligence and the Abbot committee into medical indemnity. He was sought after as a visiting lecturer in Indonesia and the Philippines.

He bought his first farm in Tarago in 1973, moving on to others in 1976 and 1977, where in Robertson he established a Polled Hereford stud, and then began share farming in wheat and sorghum in Quirindi in 1997, devoting himself to growing his own fruit and vegetables.

He died of cancer in the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital on 16 March 2007, leaving his widow Pam, whom he had met while playing tennis at school and married in 1961, 4 children and 13 grandchildren.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Information from Pamela Sheldon; Sydney Morning Herald 12 May 2007].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England