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Biographical entry Dunstan, Richard English (1923 - 2013)

MB BS Adelaide 1951; FRCS 1959; FRACS 1960.

2 July 1923
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia
30 June 2013
Bariatric surgeon and General surgeon


Richard English Dunstan (known as Dick) was a general surgeon at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, South Australia. He was born on 2 July 1923 in Adelaide, a much-loved son of Josephine Bayliss Dunstan née English and Harold Frank Dunstan, a general practitioner. He spent the early years of his life growing up in Renmark, South Australia, with his brothers John, Tim and Dean, before moving to Adelaide, where they then attended St Peter's College. He loved his years at school, where he excelled at playing Australian rules football, cricket and golf.

He gained entry to study medicine at the University of Adelaide and completed the first year. At this time, the Second World War had begun and there was a ban on medical students leaving university to enlist in the armed services, but at the age of 18, he and three of his medical student friends approached the dean of medicine to request special permission to join the Navy. The dean had not had such a request before, but agreed to grant them leave, however, they were smart enough to obtain confirmation of a place to study medicine on their return from the war.

Dick entered the Navy in 1942 as an ordinary seaman and as an extraordinary young man. He travelled widely in a corvette ship HMAS Dubbo, seeing much destruction and sadness, but he and his fellow crewmembers contributed greatly to the war effort and helped save many lives and protect supply ships. For example, in June 1943, an Australian Navy corvette HMAS Wallaroo was escorting a supply convoy when it was sunk 60 miles west of Fremantle. It had collided with one of the merchant ships in the convoy in the early hours of the morning. The Dubbo arrived in the afternoon to search for survivors. Whilst searching amongst the debris and wreckage, Dick noticed a man in trouble 70-80 metres astern and raised the alarm. Without hesitation, he dived in to provide assistance. He helped the shipwrecked sailor by swimming him towards the Dubbo. As the ship came closer Dick was a little alarmed to find a group of sailors on deck all pointing rifles in his general direction - he then realised that he had just leapt into heavily shark-infested waters and his crewmates were offering protection. Dick kept his cool and he and the ship-wrecked sailor, Bill Milne, were pulled aboard.

Dick safely completed his tour in the Navy and was demobilised as a lieutenant in 1946. Unfortunately, Dick's brother Tim, did not return from the war, having been killed in action in a tank. On his return from the war, Dick took up his place in medicine at the University of Adelaide. During his studies, he met Elspeth Anne Bonython (known as Anne) and they were married in 1948 before he finished his medical training. He worked in general practice for five years from 1952. Three children were born over this period - Sarah, Amanda and Mark.

In 1957, the family packed their bags and moved to the UK via a two-month voyage on an ocean liner for Dick to undergo extensive training to become a surgeon. They made long-lasting friends and settled down to a couple of years of hard work. Their youngest son, Hugh, was born at the end of their time in London.

In 1959 Dick was made a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, and soon after the whole family returned to Adelaide, where he was appointed as a surgical registrar at the Royal Adelaide Hospital. He was made a fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons in 1960. He became a senior surgical registrar in 1961, was appointed as an honorary clinical assistant two years later, and as an honorary assistant surgeon in 1964. From 1971 to 1988, he was a senior visiting general surgeon, and then an emeritus consultant surgeon. He also worked as a senior visiting surgeon at the Repatriation General Hospital, Daw Park, and ran a private general surgical practice in Adelaide from 1964 to 1993, specialising in bariatric surgery from 1978.

At the Royal Adelaide Hospital, he worked as a consultant with Mervyn Smith and Doug Townsend. He was recognised as being the backbone of the unit with his excellent clinical judgement and technical expertise. These two attributes were to remain strong aspects of his surgical career.

Dick was an excellent mentor and taught exemplary techniques. While assisting junior consultants, he never criticised, but if he thought something wasn't perfect he would say 'that is pretty good, but it could be better if you moved that stitch two mm!'

He was a pioneer of bariatric surgery in Adelaide. The surgery was in its infancy; it was not popular nor was it accepted as mainstream by his peers at the time. He was a driving force in the Adelaide Obesity Trial, an early randomised trial in obesity surgery. He performed the majority of the operations and kept detailed records of the patients in the trial. The report of this trial in 1990 is still being quoted in recent surgical textbooks and publications.

His case notes were meticulous in an era when this was not the normal practice. He kept diagrams of all his gastrointestinal surgery and these accompanied his detailed, clear and precise case notes. He attended when his patients had endoscopies so he could see the outcomes first-hand. His presence also aided the radiologist or gastroenterologist by explaining the post-surgical anatomy to them.

His technical expertise was also extraordinary. He developed numerous procedures to make difficult surgery a bit easier. Many of these are still used by consultants regularly and have been passed to all the fellows who have trained in the surgical unit at the Royal Adelaide Hospital since then. His legacy therefore went to the UK, Europe, Canada and India. His retractor system is still used regularly for major upper gastrointestinal surgery at the Royal Adelaide Hospital and in private practice.

Dick cared for his patients with great compassion and was well-respected by patients, colleagues and nursing staff. He was a quiet achiever, a perfectionist and extremely modest.

His relaxation revolved around playing sport with the family, golf with his friends, sailing and driving Alfa Romeos or Peugeots. He particularly loved the sea and his compassionate attitude influenced family, colleagues and friends.

Dick Dunstan died on 30 June 2013. He was 89. He will be greatly missed by his children and their spouses, grandchildren, great grandchildren, friends and colleagues.

Hugh Dunstan
Philip Game

The Royal College of Surgeons of England