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Biographical entry Nicks, George Rowan (1913 - 2011)

OBE 1945; AO 2010; MRCS and FRCS 1945; MB ChB New Zealand 1937; ChM 1951; FRCS Edin 1942; FRACS 1949.

24 February 1913
Auckland, New Zealand
May 26 2011
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Cardiothoracic surgeon


Rowan Nicks was a cardiothoracic surgeon in Sydney, who in later life became one of the most well-known and admired surgeons in Australia, noted especially for his work in promoting the training of surgeons in developing countries. He was born in Auckland, New Zealand, on 24 February 1913 to George Anthony Nicks, a timber mill owner, and his wife, Laura Nicks née Logan. He was the younger of two brothers. As he grew older, he leaned further away from his father and his life in commerce, and became closer to his Irish mother, whose considerable influence encouraged him to study and later to become a surgeon. This was important and significant. He was educated at Auckland Grammar School, Knox College, Dunedin, and later at Otago Medical School.

After an old-style apprenticeship to Kenneth Mackenzie, senior surgeon in Auckland, he sailed to England as a ship's surgeon to study for the primary FRCS examination under John Kirk at the Middlesex Hospital. Following a meeting with Sir Gordon Gordon-Taylor, he joined the Royal Navy (from 1940 to 1946) and during periods of leave visited the Brompton Hospital as he had become attracted to chest surgery.

He then decided that this was to be his future career. He obtained his English fellowship in 1945 and worked for a year at the Brompton Hospital under Tudor Edwards and Sir Clement Price Thomas - this led later to his appointment in 1947 as surgeon to a newly created thoracic unit at Greenlane Hospital in Auckland. He had been awarded a travelling scholarship to visit Clarence Crafoord in Sweden, Johann Holst and Carl Semb in Norway, and Edward Churchill and R Swert in the United States. In 1952 a further period of study leave enabled him to visit Russell Brock in London, John W Kirklin at the Mayo Clinic and Alfred Blalock in Baltimore.

In 1955 he was invited to move to Australia, to a full-time appointment at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney. This he somewhat reluctantly accepted, but under his direction and against considerable local opposition this new unit became a leading Australian cardiothoracic centre with an international reputation. He received a government grant, which enabled his team to design the first automatic pacemaker.

His wife Mary Mattinson, a St Thomas' Hospital trained theatre sister, whom he had met in England at the Haslar Royal Naval Hospital in 1941, died from leukaemia in 1969 and was a devastating blow for Rowan, especially as they had no children. He became restless, retired from his appointments in Sydney, and decided to spend time in India and Africa to teach the mysteries of cardiothoracic surgery to the new generation of young surgeons in the developing world. From 1970 to 1972, he was a visiting professor in Kampala (Uganda), Delhi and Shiraz (Iran). He wrote: 'I regarded myself as an uncomfortable catalyst between the old and new worlds. I believed that medical horizons were limitless and that we should rise to the ideals of our profession.'

Apart from this clinical work overseas he worked tirelessly with the Royal Australasian College to promote surgical training opportunities in Australia and New Zealand for surgeons from developing countries. In 1991 he established the first of the various Rowan Nicks scholarships, initially intended for surgeons from African and Asian countries. Over the next 20 years, 48 scholars from 20 countries were awarded these scholarships, the recipients of which were enabled to obtain training and experience that would otherwise have been unavailable. He also established an exchange fellowship between Australasia and the UK and the Republic of Ireland. These fellowship programs increased interaction between the surgical communities of Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom in both research and clinical practice. Not surprisingly, in 2005 he received the RACS International Medal, to add to his several other college decorations, including membership of the Court of Honour.

He became president of several Australian surgical societies, was a member of the court of examiners of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, and wrote extensively on almost every aspect of cardiovascular, pulmonary and oesophageal surgery. He published three notable books - Surgeons all: the story of cardiothoracic surgery in Australia and New Zealand (Sydney, Hales and Iremonger, 1984), The dance of life: the life and times of an antipodean surgeon (Melbourne, Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, 1996), his fascinating autobiography, and By the way (Potts Point, NSW, 1999), an anthology of his poetry. Belatedly, in the eyes of many, in 2010 he became an Officer of the Order of Australia in recognition of his huge contributions to Australian surgery.

He bought an apartment overlooking Sydney harbour at Potts Point, where he swam regularly until his late eighties, and where he died peacefully on 26 May 2011, in his 98th year.

Raymond Hurt

Sources used to compile this entry: [Information from: personal knowledge; The dance of life: the life and times of an antipodean surgeon Melbourne, Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, 1996; The University of Sydney, Sydney Medical School,_Rowan - accessed 26 September 2012].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England