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Biographical entry Taylor, John Norton (1928 - 2015)

MB BS Melbourne 1951; DO 1959; FRCS 1961; FRCS Edin 1961; FRCO 1989; FRACS; FRACO.

17 February 1928
Adelaide, Australia
26 May 2015


John Norton Taylor was an Australian ophthalmologist who contributed to improvements in the treatment of oculomotor nerve palsy. He was born in Adelaide, Australia, and was a direct descendant of Eliza Sturt, the sister of Captain Charles Sturt, a prominent Australian explorer in the early 19th century.

His family moved to Melbourne in 1938, where he attended Trinity Grammar School as a boarder. He excelled in academic pursuits and sports, and in his final year he became vice captain of both the school's Australian rules football and cricket teams. He was awarded school colours in these sports, as well as in lacrosse and shooting - the latter a surprise to his family on discovering the award amongst his treasured possessions.

He was one of few civilians admitted to the school of medicine of the University of Melbourne in 1946, having narrowly missed being eligible for active service during the Second World War. He qualified in 1951.

After graduating, he took a role as a senior resident medical officer at the Launceston General Hospital, Tasmania, where he pursued his early interest in obstetrics. He held this position from 1952 to 1953, before moving back to Melbourne as a resident medical officer in 1954.

He resolved that obstetrics was not his preferred specialty and, in 1954, he accepted an urgent job offer to become a medical officer with the Australian Embassy in Rome, Italy. Taylor was immediately posted to Greece to medically process potential migrants to Australia. He was also posted to Cyprus and Beirut, Lebanon, to perform similar duties. He then returned to Rome, and with Rome as his base, he was sent for short periods to Naples and Messina in Sicily, again processing migrants for entry into Australia.

In 1956, after 12 months based in Rome, he was moved permanently to Trieste, where he again performed the task of providing medical clearance for potential migrants from this area, as well as refugees from across the border. It has been reported that between 1954 and 1961 some 20,000 Triestini (or 10 per cent of the population of Trieste) left their city and over 90 per cent of these took up residence in Australia. During this time, Taylor mastered conversational Italian and quickly made many friends among the locals, none of whom could speak English.

While living in Trieste, the Hungarian Revolution broke out in 1956, and while the vast majority of Hungarian escapees fled to Austria, several thousand crossed the border into Yugoslavia, which was then a communist nation under Marshal Tito. Although Australia had no diplomatic relations with Yugoslavia at the time, it was requested to accept escapees as migrants through the British Embassy in Belgrade. Taylor and three other Australian medical representatives were sent into Yugoslavia in response to this request in 1957, to be stationed at Osijek near the Hungarian border in Yugoslavia. After processing refugees for some months, the job was finally complete, and Taylor again returned to Italy in November 1957.

At the end of his stint in Rome, Taylor felt it time to further his medical career, and in August 1958 he moved to London to study and specialise in ophthalmology. He was first an outpatient medical officer at Moorfields Eye Hospital and then became a resident medical officer at Bristol Eye Hospital. After 18 months, he returned to Moorfields in London and gained his fellowships of the Royal College of Surgeons of England and of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, as well as his diploma in ophthalmology.

In 1962 he met and married a young Canadian nurse from Toronto, who happened to be in London at that time. They married in London and returned to Australia in July 1962, where they established a happy family life.

Following his return to Australia, Taylor added the fellowships of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons and the Royal Australasian College of Ophthalmologists to his name. He joined the senior medical staff at the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital in Melbourne, where he became a senior surgeon in charge of a general eye clinic. He also established a thriving private practice in Melbourne's famed Collins Street. Many of his patients were native Italian speakers, and as well as various eye conditions, or none at all, Taylor pondered whether their predominant reason for attending was a desire to converse in their native tongue.

While overseas, Taylor had become interested in ocular motility (or squint) diagnosis and management, and in 1969, with support of the senior medical staff of the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital, he founded and ran the ocular motility clinic at the hospital, which was the first such clinic in Australia. He was also appointed as director of the orthoptic department.

In view of the increasing volume and complexity of knowledge required in modern ophthalmology, he introduced the concept of training orthoptists as medical technicians, and advocated for the study of orthoptics to become a formal university qualification. This was accepted by La Trobe University in Melbourne, which to this day offers this qualification.

Over this period of his hospital activity he wrote numerous articles, which were published in medical journals both in Australia and overseas. In particular, one piece that attracted interest from across the world was titled 'Surgical management of oculomotor nerve palsy with lateral rectus transplantation to the medial side of the globe' (Aust N Z J Ophthalmol. 1989 Feb;17[1]:27-31).

In the early 1970s he started supplying medical eye services to Australia's Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS), which was established to transport patients and medical staff across the vast distances of outback Australia. Taylor was based at Broken Hill for one week every year, from which he flew with the RFDS to outback areas in New South Wales and Queensland to examine and treat various eye conditions, particularly those prevalent among Aboriginal populations. In later years, he established other eye clinics in places of need, on King Island in Bass Strait and Pambula in New South Wales. His wife, Cathy, accompanied him on many of these medical adventures, as his nurse assistant in the various clinics he established.

In 1999, he retired well before he would have preferred, due to a heart condition. Nevertheless, he continued to enjoy life following his retirement, with frequent visits to Melbourne's Athenaeum Club, where he had been a member for 30 years. He died on 26 May 2015, aged 87, and was survived by his wife of over 50 years, Catherine, their daughter and two sons, and three grandchildren.

Susan Taylor

The Royal College of Surgeons of England