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Biographical entry Swaney, William Eric (1919 - 2013)

MB BS Melbourne 1943; FRACS 1950; FRCS 1951.

12 March 1919
Melbourne, Australia
22 April 2013
Melbourne, Australia
Anatomist and Orthopaedic surgeon


William Eric Swaney, known as 'Bill' to his colleagues, was head of orthopaedics at Royal Melbourne Hospital. As head of a very busy orthopaedic unit, he mentored many young orthopaedic surgeons and trainees in the early days of the Australian orthopaedic training programme.

Bill was born in Footscray, a western suburb of Melbourne, on 12 March 1919 and was an only child. His father, William Henry Swaney, was a public servant in high office. His mother, Margaret Elizabeth Swaney née Brown, came from a family that owned a steel foundry. He was educated at Scotch College in Melbourne and was a good student and sportsman. He played rugby and rowed in the 1937 first crew. Thereafter he was a lifelong supporter of the school and a member of its council.

He studied medicine at Melbourne University and there met Marie Cockbill, who was a medical student in his year and who later became a successful anaesthetist and university academic. They were married in 1943 and were an inseparable, dynamic and devoted couple throughout their lives and into the seventieth year of their marriage. Bill and Marie had five children and managed to find the optimal balance between being a close and loving family and leading busy professional lives.

Following medical graduation, Bill carried out his residency at the Alfred Hospital, then joined the Army and bravely served in the South West Pacific, where he was mentioned in despatches. He rarely talked about this experience, but apparently as a young medical officer he frequently worked alone in the most difficult of circumstances treating and operating on sick and wounded soldiers. When stationed in the Solomon Islands, Bill met Charles Littlejohn, the first orthopaedic surgeon at Royal Melbourne Hospital, who may have encouraged him to specialise in orthopaedics.

After the war, Bill returned to work and study at Melbourne University and Royal Melbourne and Heidelberg Repatriation hospitals. It was there he met the eminent orthopaedic surgeons Brian Keon-Cohen and John Jens.

He obtained his FRACS and in 1951 went with his young family to England, where he passed his FRCS on his first attempt and worked for two years at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital. He worked there with Jip James, who later became professor of orthopaedics at Princess Margaret Rose Hospital in Edinburgh, and from him Bill acquired many useful skills especially related to spinal conditions.

He returned to Melbourne in 1953 to commence private practice and to work in the orthopaedic unit at Royal Melbourne Hospital under the leadership of Brian Keon-Cohen, who had been appointed after the retirement of Charles Littlejohn. Also working in the unit at that time were Eric Price and Peter Williams, both of whom later became head of orthopaedics at the Royal Children's Hospital. The four must have made a formidable orthopaedic team. Bill was greatly influenced by Brian's intellect and teaching, and they became very firm friends and shared the same consulting rooms.

Bill was subsequently appointed head of the Royal Melbourne orthopaedic unit in 1963, following Brian's retirement. At that time Bill was still a consultant orthopaedic surgeon to the Australian Army, holding the rank of colonel, and, in 1969, that role sent him once again into a war zone, this time to Vietnam.

Under Bill's leadership at Royal Melbourne he introduced a new system where each surgeon had his own outpatient clinic and waiting list. It was an interesting time when joint replacement was becoming established and, despite some initial bureaucratic resistance, he was able to instigate a dedicated orthopaedic theatre for this purpose. There was a steady flow of talented newly-trained surgeons through the unit, including Kingsley Mills, Peter Kudelka, Owen Deacon, Doug Ritchie, Max Wearne, Brian Davey and Neil Bromberger. Notable trainees of the time included Bob Dickens, Clive Jones, Jonathan Rush, Bill Heape, Bill Cole and later John Bartlett, Ian Jones and John Harris. Bill was one of the original members of the Victorian branch of the orthopaedic training committee and he greatly enjoyed lecturing and teaching trainees and students.

He was a gentleman, of the no nonsense autocratic era, and ran the unit and his practice in that way, earning the wide respect of his colleagues and hospital staff. He was a distinguished looking man who kept his military erect posture and dressed immaculately, usually in a suit. He also had a penchant for suede shoes.

Bill was always punctual, and operating lists and clinics seldom went over time. He operated with great alacrity with the traditional 'non touch technique', that was so instilled in his time. He was multi-skilled, but had a special interest in the spine, shoulders and feet.

He did original research on blood supply to the rotator cuff and the influence of the impinging coracoacromial ligament supposedly compromising the blood supply. He also introduced the primitive but effective form of stabilisation of spinal fusions by placing acrylic bone cement over the graft and encasing the lumbar spinous processes. The cement was later removed. He would do spinal osteotomies to correct gross deformity in ankylosing spondylitis and was a skilled manipulator of the spine and stiff joints, including shoulders knees and even feet, which is seldom done now in orthopaedic practice.

Bill also maintained a longstanding association with the Melbourne University anatomy school and was a feared examiner in anatomy, which was one of his special areas of expertise. He was also an examiner for the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons' primary examination and was at one time president of the Australian Physiotherapy Association.

His large private practice and public hospital commitment provided a spectrum of patients from near and far, from the very poor and humble to the most wealthy and privileged in high office. When he retired from the Royal Melbourne Hospital in 1979 his wide experience and no nonsense reports made him sought after for medico-legal opinions, especially if there was conjecture about the degree of infirmity. Although he enjoyed operating until he was 70, he became somewhat disillusioned with medico-legal practice, which he didn't miss when he was fully retired.

He loved to spend time with Marie and his family, and he also greatly enjoyed his other life as a gentleman farmer at a superb property at Melton, then just outside Melbourne, but now one of its outer suburbs. In fact he so greatly enjoyed his farm that Marie confided that even in Bill's early orthopaedic days Brian Keon-Cohen thought that Bill seemed more interested in his farm at times than his orthopaedics!

He and Marie enjoyed travel and made many friends over the years, particularly in the Orkney Islands, where Bill's family had originated.

In his retirement Bill wrote a wonderfully candid treatise about his life and experiences, which revealed his modest openness, humaneness and strong character. Unfortunately the tragic death of his son John greatly saddened his later years and his longevity also meant he outlived many of his old friends. He remained 'on the ball' however, and was always interested in his colleagues' careers and progress, and enjoyed meeting to discuss old times.

Bill died on 22 April 2013, aged 94, and Marie sadly died four weeks later. Predeceased by John, they were survived by their other sons William, Rowan and Simon, and by their daughter, Susan.

Bill Swaney was a man of fine presence who served his country and his profession with the highest distinction.

John E Harris

The Royal College of Surgeons of England