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Biographical entry Berg, Derek Oliver (1926 - 2014)

MB BS Sydney 1953; FRCS 1956; FRACS; FACS; MRACR.

13 November 1926
Hong Kong
4 February 2014
General practitioner, General surgeon, Oncologist and Radiologist


Derek Berg was born in 1926 in Hong Kong, where his father was a shipping broker and Norwegian Consul-General. His Australian mother Constance died of cerebral malaria just before his third birthday, and Derek was sent to live with his aunt in Adelaide. His father remarried and he returned to Hong Kong, travelling with his stepmother - who he was led to believe was his own mother. …

At the age of 10, Derek was sent to boarding school at St Giles British School in Tsingtao, China, and travelled there by cargo ship, taking up to 10 days. In 1939 the school closed due to the outbreak of World War II, and Derek returned to Australia to live with his step-uncle at Bundarra in northern NSW. He became a boarder at The Armidale School (TAS), where he excelled at athletics and was a member of the rugby First XV. It was here that he built up life-long friends, as, without a family, he spent most of his holidays at the homes and stations of families he never forgot.

He was unhappy at TAS and was unaware of the fate of his parents. On mature reflection he would regret it, but he left school at 16 to stay with an aunt in Sydney. He tried to join the Navy. Despite stating that he was older in age, he was not accepted as he was found to be colour blind. He therefore instead joined the Bank of New South Wales (Westpac) in O'Connell Street, Sydney, and studied at night to pass the Leaving Certificate. In 1945 he joined the Army and became Private Berg (NX206272). One month later Germany surrendered, although Derek was sure there was no connection between the two events.

In 1946 Derek was reunited with his father and step-mother in Sydney. In 1941 they had become prisoners of war. When Derek saw them for the first time in 7 years, they were painfully thin and their possessions consisted of two little bags. They had lost almost everything. …

Derek enrolled in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Sydney in 1947. While 600 students enrolled, only a group of 100, which included Derek, graduated in 1953. As a student, Derek was a boarder at St Andrew's College for several years and played rugby for the University reserve grade, as the First XV at that time had 13 players who had played for either the Wallabies or the All Blacks (selected from NZ students studying at the Sydney University Veterinary school, as veterinary studies were at the time not being offered in NZ). …

After graduating, Derek became a doctor at the Sydney Hospital, where he decided to become a surgeon. He travelled to England as a ship's surgeon on a cargo vessel and became a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1956. He then spent a year as a registrar at the Derbyshire Royal Infirmary, where his surgical skills were developed with operating lists taking up to 16 hours.

On his return to Australia, Derek obtained a position as a GP/surgeon in Tamworth, where he later became a specialist surgeon. Derek built up contact with GPs in surrounding towns and often flew up to Collarenebri, Wee Waa or Walgett or drove to Quirindi, Walcha or Barraba for minor surgical procedures, with the local GP being the anaesthetist. He also spent time in Sydney at Royal Prince Alfred, St Vincent's and Prince Henry's Hospitals to assist and learn about thoracic surgery. Derek obtained the Australasian Fellowship in Surgery and later (after Vietnam) the American Fellowship in Surgery. …

In 1968, with Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War, Derek volunteered for a 3-month period as a surgeon in Long Xuyen, in the Mekong delta 150 km south-west of Saigon. It was an exhilarating time for him professionally. Lighting and hot water were not always available in the operating theatres, but the doctors made do with torches and candles. The medical team was extremely busy, and Derek started operating the morning after his arrival and virtually never stopped for 3 months. The majority of cases were gunshot, shrapnel or mine injuries, but there were also perforated typhoid ulcers and complications of tuberculosis and diphtheria.

In 1969 Derek returned home and resumed his practice in Tamworth. Soon to follow was the setting up of a consultative cancer clinic at the Tamworth Base Hospital by Professor Leicester Atkinson from the Radiotherapy Department at Prince of Wales Hospital, Sydney. Derek was actively engaged with the clinic, and this was the catalyst that kindled his interest in the treatment of cancer by radiotherapy.

In early 1971 Derek was appointed a senior surgeon in Papua New Guinea in Goroka in the highlands for the first 3 months and then at ANGAU Hospital in Lae. Surgical problems included injuries from arrows and spears, parasitic diseases and infections. Cancer of the mouth was very common and was attributed to the habit of chewing betel-nut.

The Australian Head & Neck Oncology Group held their annual meeting in Lae in 1972, and Derek presented a paper on treatment of mouth cancers. St Vincent's Hospital Sydney subsequently arranged to send senior surgical registrars to Lae on a rotating basis for 3 to 6 months. Under the supervision of the Queensland Radium Institute (now Royal Brisbane and Women's Hospital), a radiotherapy unit was established at ANGAU in 1972. A Cancer Workshop was held in Lae in 1974 and resulted in Derek and Dr John Niblett (founding director of radiotherapy at Lae) producing a booklet, A Guide to Management of Malignant Disease in Papua New Guinea. A third edition was published in 2006. …

Professor Leicester Atkinson from Prince of Wales Hospital, Sydney, was a frequent visitor to PNG and Lae and talked to Derek about a new career move, given his interest in treatment of cancer. In 1977, Derek joined Prince of Wales as a registrar and embarked on a four-year training course. At the time he was 50 years of age and had five children to support on a registrar's wage. …

He subsequently became a staff specialist in radiotherapy at Prince of Wales, responsible for the St George Hospital 'peripheral' clinic.

In 1982 Derek was appointed Director of Radiotherapy at St Vincent's Hospital. The department was at a crisis point when he took over, as not only was the department in decline, treating only 20 or so patients a day, but in late 1981 the Trinker Report on Radiotherapy in NSW had recommended that radiotherapy at St Vincent's should be closed or amalgamated with the nearby Prince of Wales Hospital.

However, the Sisters of Charity averted this by meetings with the then NSW Health Minister (Mr Laurie Brereton), and a new cobalt machine was purchased with funds from the Curran Foundation. The St George Hospital clinic was also transferred to St Vincent's and provided an immediate supply of patients for treatment.

St Vincent's was the beginning of an extraordinary happy, rewarding and successful time for Derek professionally. He had an immediate support base from surgical friends from his time at Tamworth and also from registrars (now consultants) whom he helped train at Lae. …

The Wagga Wagga Clinic - the oldest peripheral clinic of any discipline in NSW, established by Leicester Atkinson in 1954 - was expanded by Derek. In addition, Dr Graeme Morgan, who became a life-long friend and a partner in the new St Vincent's Clinic department, established a new clinic at Griffith Base Hospital.

Consultative clinics in head & neck, haematological and lung cancers were continued, along with support for total body irradiation prior to bone marrow transplantation, and new clinical cooperation was developed in gynaecological and urological cancers.

A gynaecological cancer clinic was established with Professor Neville Hacker at the nearby Royal Hospital for Women, Paddington. Here Derek helped develop a technique of small-field irradiation, rather than whole-pelvis treatment, to be given postoperatively to high-risk, node-negative Stage 1B cervix cancer patients. This approach has now become the standard of care for this group of patients.

In urological cancer, Derek's visit to Perth to learn the new technique of permanent I-125 seed implantation for early carcinoma of the prostate resulted in the first treatment at St Vincent's Clinic of a patient with his disease in 1995. Around 1000 patients had been treated at the unit using this technique by the time Derek retired.

In 1991, Derek and Graeme Morgan borrowed heavily to establish a radiotherapy department within the newly opened St Vincent's Clinic that provided a state-of-the-art facility to expand radiotherapy services at St Vincent's. Much to the delight of Sister Bernice and many others at St Vincent's, this initiative proved to be extremely successful.

As a clinician, Derek was first-class, and his caring and supportive approach to patient care was well recognised by the colleagues, patients and families with whom he came into contact. He was always available to see a patient at any time and did not restrict his availability to standard hours of duty.

With his gentle and unassuming but vibrant and energetic behaviour, Derek was a quiet achiever, leading the department from the front foot. He had the unique ability to make every member of the staff feel special, taking time to chat and to encourage and acknowledge the contributions each person was making. …

In 1998 Derek retired from St Vincent's and moved to Noosa, where he and Judy spent 13 fun-filled, relaxing years. During his time Derek wrote an autobiography, My Paper Trail, plus a biography of his father, The Shipping Broker, and was in the process of writing a third, World Faiths, about his concepts of the meaning of religion and life.

Derek always maintained his love for St Vincent's Hospital, the Sisters of Charity, Sister Bernice and the medical staff. When he was found to have prostate cancer, he and Judy returned to Sydney to be closer to care at this hospital. Later through his illness, he went on to receive palliative radiotherapy for bony secondaries in the very department he had played a key role in establishing.

Ironically, Derek died on World Cancer Day, 4 February 2014. …

We extend our deepest sympathies to Judy and the Minchin family, to Derek's children - Janet, Andrew, Michelle, Amanda and James - and their partners, and to his 10 grandchildren.

Graeme Morgan
Kumar Gogna

Sources used to compile this entry: [Abridged from 'Radiation Oncology - Obituary Derek Oliver Berg (1926-2014)' Journal of Medical Imaging and Radiation Oncology 58 (2014) 437-9; republished by kind permission].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England