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Biographical entry Millar, Kenneth John (1926 - 2013)

MB BS Melbourne 1949; FRCS 1957; FRACS 1960.

13 October 1926
Wangaratta, Victoria, Australia
27 August 2013
General surgeon


Ken Millar was chief of surgery at the Repatriation Hospital, Heidelberg, Victoria, Australia. He was born in Wangaratta, Victoria, on 13 October 1926, the second son of schoolteachers Leonard James Millar and Marion Millar née Amiet. He grew up in a variety of rural towns in Victoria, before the family settled in Hampton. Holidays were spent at Murgheboloc, a tiny town west of Geelong, where his mother's family had established a vineyard in the 1850s after emigrating from the Swiss region of Neuchâtel. Ken's preferred memories of boyhood were these days spent on the farm with his uncles and aunt, and cousins Mary and Jeanette. As a teenager, he would regularly escape the city of Melbourne by riding a bicycle to 'Murghe' to work as a farm hand, to trap or shoot rabbits, and to fish the Barwon River. During the Second World War, a car load of rabbits could be sold at the Victoria Market as cheap meat for Melbourne workers, and as a useful source of income for a young medical student.

Ken proved academically able and advanced by two years to matriculate at the age of 16 from University High School, and then studied medicine at the University of Melbourne, boarding at Ormond College. He joined the rowing and hockey clubs. Lifetime friendships were established, with his room-mate Mick Morris and with his medical student colleagues, who shared responsibility for pranks such as dying the Yarra River green in support of the Ormond rowing crew and setting off fireworks from the Ormond clocktower.

After graduating, Ken was a resident medical officer at the Royal Melbourne Hospital (from 1949 to 1950) and at the Repatriation Hospital (from 1950 to 1953). He and his friend Derek Gundry also acted as doctors for racing events, including Grand Prix at Albert Park and Phillip Island. The lifelong passion that emerged was not for car racing, but for motoring and the long distance travel it enabled. Ken's vehicles were always practical, and never complete without camping gear and a fishing rod in the back.

Whilst working in general practice in 1953, Ken met Joan Iris Glen, an expatriate New Zealand accountant who was working as an air hostess. Ken's idea of a romantic gift apparently included a pair of dead rabbits left on Joan's doorstep. Ken and Joan were married in February 1955, and they honeymooned in the eastern Victorian bush in a small caravan. Their first child, Ian, was born in November 1955, to be followed by David in 1958.

Ken had meanwhile decided to pursue a career in surgery, and so took his wife and young son to England in 1956 to train in London and at Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, culminating in achieving the fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1957. In those days, free travel was possible as a ship's doctor, and the family returned to live in Moorabin, Victoria, in 1958, with Ken initially working as an 'honorary' surgeon at the Prince Henry Hospital in south Melbourne, and subsequently joining the staff of the Repatriation Hospital, Heidelberg.

'The Repat' was Ken's professional home for the rest of his working life, as he became one of the first full-time salaried surgeons in Victoria, dedicating his career to serving Australia's returned servicemen and women. He ended his career there as chief of surgery. His surgical career commenced in the days when a general surgeon was truly a general surgeon, with the need to perform cranial burr holes, vascular repairs, Moores prostheses for neck of femur fractures and the like, in addition to anything surgical involving the neck, chest or abdomen. In later years, he specialised more in upper and lower GI surgery, but retained a broad range of skills that were used again after retirement when he undertook locum and aid agency work in various locations including Vanuatu, Nauru and Port Moresby.

In retirement Ken sometimes expressed a regret he had not published more, but he has left a legacy as a memorable clinical educator and mentor to his students, residents and registrars. He also contributed to the education of surgical and operating theatre nurses, and to theatre technicians and orderlies. He provided many years of service to the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons as an educator and examiner. In 2006, he was awarded the ANZAC medal for his lifetime of service to veterans' health.

His retirement years initially allowed travel, golf, tennis and more time in the acre of garden he had constructed by hard labour from the cow paddock the family had purchased in 1964. He became a dedicated full-time carer for Joan as her Parkinson's disease progressed, until her death in 2008. He contributed to the local community as a board member for the health centre, and will be remembered by friends and neighbours as the gentle, generous and quietly humorous giver of jams, pickles and sauces created from the produce of his garden.

His plans for further adventures were curtailed by a diagnosis of a glioblastoma multiforme in early 2013 and he died peacefully at home on 27 August 2013, aged 86. He was survived by his sons Ian and David, and grandchildren Alison, James and Andrew.

Ian Millar

The Royal College of Surgeons of England