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Biographical entry O'Sullivan, Joseph John (1927 - 2015)

MB BS Sydney 1956; DOMS Vienna 1962; DOMS London 1966; FRCS 1970; FRCO 1989.

28 July 1927
Sydney, Australia
12 July 2015
Melbourne, Australia


Joseph John ('Joe') O'Sullivan was an ophthalmologist in Victoria, Australia. He was born in Sydney on 28 July 1927 and was educated at St Patrick's College, Strathfield, Sydney. He served in the Army between 1946 and 1948, repatriating some prisoners, and then went on to the University of Sydney to study medicine.

Joe was very much a bachelor in his early life and a very affable gentleman, who spent a lot of time in England and made many friends. He loved cricket, but it was not always easy to understand exactly which fielding position he was talking about when he used his full range of Australian terms. In addition, he was keen on Australian football and very travelled. He was a good tennis player.

Joe worked for the Australian government and was posted to Italy. At the University of Vienna, he achieved a diploma of ophthalmology in 1962, and then took another diploma in diploma of ophthalmology in London in 1966. He became a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1970.

Joe accepted an invitation to serve the Order of St John of Jerusalem. This came from Sir Stewart Duke-Elder, who at the time was hospitaller at the St John's Hospital in Jerusalem, then in Jordan. Sir Stuart interviewed suitably qualified eye doctors who served a number of years. With his widespread experience in ophthalmology in many lands, Joe was very appreciated at this hospital for two years, from 1963 to 1965. He was admitted as a serving brother of the Order of St John of Jerusalem in 1966.

During his time in Jerusalem, Jordan, he was to understand the Arab mentality of the time and the hospital would attract about 1,000 patients per day. Joe would be one of three qualified eye surgeons seeing patients coming as outpatients into three columns, with Joe at one of them, and each doctor would take a third of the patients that arrived in the courtyard that day. When the courtyard was closed, the door was shut and further patients would arrive and sit and wait until the hospital opened early in the morning the following day. Every tenth patient would need hospital admission for eye surgery, including cornea transplants from measles blindness, cataracts, squints and many pterygiums. The surgeons would operate huge lists and great relief was achieved, many patients walking in almost blind and leaving seeing much better.

Sundays remained a day of rest and there was a strong Roman Catholic influence and also in the French hospital next door, which managed more general conditions. The hospitaller of the time at the hospital in Jerusalem was Arthur Boase, who was himself an excellent surgeon and served the hospital very well. During his time at the hospital, Joe met Clare Buxton, who was the assistant matron, having been a highly-trained theatre sister. Joe was a man of few words and telephoned his future best man to say: 'I am coming to London soon. I am going to marry Clare. You are going to be best man.' And so it was.

Joe was extremely nervous on his wedding day. He clutched his missal because he knew that it was a no turning back moment as a very sincere, practising Catholic. As Clare was exactly similar and knew the ophthalmic world so well, they were a perfect fit and had wonderful children, Helen and Joe junior.

Before long Joe and Clare settled happily in Heidelberg, Melbourne, Australia. This is a wonderful part of Melbourne and he loved Melbourne, but was very critical of aspects of it and referred to the river Yarra as the 'upside down river' because Joe said there was more mud on the top than there was on the bottom! Joe had a practice in Bendigo and travelled twice a week from Melbourne.

Joe was fussy about the church in which he worshipped. This was very important to him. He liked the traditional approach and, if there was any suggestion of progressiveness, Joe would motor to the other side of Melbourne or to the very last church which regarded and maintained every tradition.

He had a wide range of friends and was a technically very capable surgeon. A great family man who set a wonderful example, once he had a friend they would remain so for life. Joe O'Sullivan died in Melbourne on 12 July 2015. He was 87.

Roger Greenhalgh

The Royal College of Surgeons of England