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Biographical entry Gye, Richard Spencer Butler (1926 - 2012)

AO 1988; BSc Sydney 1953; MB BS 1955; MA Oxford 1961; DPhil 1967; FRACS 1960; FRCS 1973; Hon MD Sydney 1993.

18 February 1926
Sydney, Australia
25 December 2012


Richard Gye ('Dick') was one of the foremost neurosurgeons in Australia and a pioneer in his field. He was born in Sydney on 18 January1926, the youngest of three sons of Eva and George Butler Gye, both professional journalists. In infancy his parents divorced, leaving Eva to raise her family on her own at the start of the Depression. With support from her extended family, her journalist career took her to England and Europe on three trips without her sons. In Sydney she joined The Australian Women's Weekly, owned by Sir Frank Packer, as a writer and later as editor. Richard's eldest brother died of influenza at a young age.

Attending several schools throughout his education, his final years were completed at Knox Grammar School, Wahroonga, on the upper north shore of Sydney, from 1942 to 1944. He described this period as being amongst the happiest of his life, where he came to understand the meaning of fellowship and friendship that endures despite the uncertainties of time and distance. He was a good athlete and keen footballer, house prefect and captain. He was to enjoy a lifelong association with the school as a parent, later becoming an active member and past president of the Senior Knoxonians.

He enlisted in the Royal Australian Navy in January 1945, serving in the South Pacific, advancing to the rank of sub-lieutenant. Whilst serving on HMAS Lachlan, he undertook surveys of the northern coastline of Australia, some areas of which had been chartered by Matthew Flinders, including the first complete survey and charting of King Sound, Western Australia. It was during this period that Richard was befriended by the ship's surgeon, who recognised his potential, encouraging him to seriously consider a career in medicine. He was discharged from the Navy in 1947 after being injured in a mine explosion whilst commanding a mine clearing patrol boat in north Queensland.

In 1948, he enrolled in medicine at the University of Sydney. In 1953, he graduated with honours and obtained his MB BS, also with honours, in 1955. It was early on in his medical studies that his interest in neurology was apparent when he was asked by the university's professor of anatomy to review the vascular components of the optic radiation of the human brain. He was awarded the (shared) Norton Manning prize in psychiatry in 1955. It was also during this time that he met his future wife, Margaret Waddell. They were married in 1956. Margaret looked after their growing family. Their son Nicholas was born in 1958 and their daughter Louise was born in 1960.

On graduating, Richard was appointed to the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, where he trained as a neurosurgeon. After gaining his fellowship of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons in 1960, he was awarded a Nuffield Dominion travelling fellowship in neurosurgery to further his studies and clinical experience in neurosurgery in Oxford. He was admitted as a member of Worcester College, Oxford, and in 1967 was awarded a doctorate in philosophy for his thesis, 'A clinical and experimental study of sub-dural effusions'. The department of neurological surgery at the Radcliffe Infirmary, headed by Joe Pennybacker, was a major neurosurgical facility, one of four in the country established in the 1930s. Demands were heavy, with the department providing neurosurgical services to over four million people; in consequence he rapidly gained vast clinical experience, training and guidance. On arrival, he was appointed as a house officer, later becoming a senior registrar.

Returning to Sydney in 1964, he was appointed as a senior lecturer in neurosurgery at the University of Sydney. He developed the first academic unit of neurosurgery in Sydney, becoming an associate professor and academic head of neurosurgery at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. He also held clinical posts at other teaching hospitals in Sydney.

Richard appreciated the need for other neurosurgical services in more remote places, including the Northern Territory. His principal research interest was nerve transplantation, and the preparation and use of nerve grafts in treating Aboriginal patients at the East Arm Leprosy Hospital in Darwin, who had suffered extensive damage to the nerves in their limbs due to leprosy. Several trips were made to Melville, Bathurst and Goote islands.

He was also asked by the government of Fiji to provide a neurosurgical service. Between 1965 and 1970, Richard and his team successfully performed major operations on brain tumours and other conditions in Fiji, visiting the country two to three times a year during this period.

In 1971, following the impending retirement of his mentor, Joe Pennybacker, Richard accepted an appointment as head of the department of neurological surgery at the Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford. He had many friends from his earlier years and this proved to be an exciting and rewarding period in his professional life as a surgeon.

In 1974, on his return to Australia, he was appointed as the first full-time professor and dean of the faculty of medicine at the University of Sydney, a post he held for 15 years. This was a time of major changes to the undergraduate curriculum, increasing numbers of academic staff and departments, and the opening of new teaching hospitals, including the planning, development and building of Westmead Hospital. He was involved in university administration, teaching hospital management, and state and federal health department policy development up to ministerial level. In addition, he continued with his clinical duties as a neurosurgeon at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and other teaching hospitals.

From 1979 he was deputy chairman of the Menzies Foundation that led to his contributing, amongst other things, to the establishment in 1985 of a major medical research institute in the tropical Northern Territory, the Menzies School of Health Research, Darwin, which is linked academically to the University of Sydney.

Richard was appointed as an Officer of the Order of Australia for services to medicine in 1988, before retiring from the deanship in 1989. He continued as professor of neurosurgery and was engaged as a visiting professor in neurosurgery at the Frenchay Hospital, Bristol, before his retirement from the University of Sydney. He became an emeritus professor at the University of Sydney in 1992 and was appointed as a consultant emeritus to the department of surgery, neurosciences, at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. He also worked as a medico-legal consultant in private practice.

He believed that the excellence of an institution is not a function of bricks and mortar, but it is dependent upon the people who work within it, and the traditions which ensure that the highest principles and standards are passed on from one generation to another.

In retirement Richard pursued his abiding interest in drawing and painting. He enjoyed reading historical biographies and attending orchestral concerts. He had been a member of the Australian Club since 1976.

His was an inspiring life, well spent and with many great contributions made. He will be remembered for his generous and warm nature, his devotion and loyalty to his family and friends, his sensitivity and for his consideration and thoughtfulness for others.

Richard died on 25 December 2012, aged 86. He was survived by his wife Margaret, their daughter Louise and four grandchildren. Their son, Nicholas, predeceased him.

Louise Goldrick

Sources used to compile this entry: [Personal knowledge and private papers, the University of Sydney,_Richard_Spencer_Butler - accessed 21 February 2014].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England