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Biographical entry Shackleton, Michael Elliott (1927 - 2015)

OBE; MB ChB Otago 1954; FRCS 1958; FRACS.

31 March 1927
Waimate, New Zealand
20 September 2015
General surgeon and Paediatric surgeon


Michael was born in Waimate, to Ronald, surgeon, general practitioner and Superintendent of the Waimate Hospital, and Mary Armstrong, a talented amateur artist. Both parents played the violin and from an early age Michael learned the piano and singing. He had a younger sister, Janet who would go on to win a Commonwealth Games medal as a hurdler. Michael attended primary school in Waimate and at an early age demonstrated a sense of adventure. He attended Christ's College where he became a prefect and Deputy Head of School. He enjoyed sport representing Christ's in athletics, swimming, rugby and shooting.

Michael respected his father and admired his work and these were major influences on Michael's decision to become a doctor. Spending his first year in Dunedin at Knox College he gained entry to Medical School and graduated MB ChB in1954. During the course of his medical training Michael participated in a wide range of student activities including the Dramatic Society, Sports Editor critic, Capping Concert Sextette, Athletic Club Captain and Otago University small bore shooting representation.

In 1955 Michael secured a position as house surgeon at Dunedin Hospital and at the end of that year he married Annabel Wilson who had just completed her BA Degree. She was the daughter of Stanley Wilson, a senior and highly respected Dunedin surgeon, a veteran of war surgery and a President of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons. Michael spent the next year as an anatomy demonstrator as, influenced by his father-in-law, he planned to travel to the United Kingdom to pursue surgical training. In the course of this year their daughter Anna was born. At the end of 1956 Michael travelled to London as ship's doctor, while Annabel and Anna followed some weeks later on the Ruahine, arriving for New Year 1957. The next two years were spent in house surgeon positions at St James Hospital, London and Addenbrooks Hospital, Cambridge, during which his FRCS was obtained. Following a period as locum registrar for Sir Arthur Porritt at St Mary's Hospital, Michael returned to St James Hospital 1959-61 working with Mr Norman Tanner with a particular interest in gastric surgery. This was a very busy period as the family increased in size with the birth of Nicki, Andrew and Richard. After completing a stint in urology at St Peters Hospital Michael, Annabel and their family of four returned to New Zealand.

While Michael was well trained there was no surety of a surgeon position in Dunedin and he was initially appointed Resident Surgical Officer at the Dunedin Hospital and Clinical Lecturer in Surgery at the University of Otago. He quickly gained his FRACS. Eighteen months later the Dean of the Otago University Medical School, Sir Edward Sayers, suggested to Michael that he might care to volunteer to lead a proposed surgical team being formed under the Colombo Plan to provide assistance to the Republic of South Vietnam. Driven by the appeal of an unique experience, and the compelling belief that he could do some good for humankind Michael accepted the challenge; and with Annabel and their five children (Sarah born 1962), flew to Viet Nam, and after six weeks trying to organise accommodation arrived in Qui Nhon in Binh Dinh province on Anzac Day 1963.

Michael demonstrated extraordinary persistence and dogged determination in getting the team set up and running, hurdling his way over apathy, incompetence, and unthinking opposition, and a near-total absence of equipment, instruments, and facilities. There were no operating tables or theatre lights in the newly constructed theatre block and acquiring accommodation for team personnel was an immediate challenge. However, the team Michael established was present continuously in South Vietnam for 12 years and many medical and nursing personnel, radiographers, laboratory technologists, handymen and administrators served over that period. The continuing presence of a civilian surgical team in Qui Nhon, providing surgical services to the people of Binh Dinh province throughout the 12 years of Vietnam's agony was almost certainly an influential factor in initiating and maintaining a relationship of mutual respect and warmth between New Zealand and Viet Nam at both diplomatic and inter-personal levels.

Returning to New Zealand in 1964 Michael resumed his previous surgical roles. Two years later he was appointed to a consultant position at Dunedin Hospital, working as a general and paediatric surgeon. The birth of a third son, Philip, completed the family of six children. In his role of Clinical Lecturer in Surgery Michael was appreciated as a teacher providing students with a very practical approach to the assessment and management of the surgical patient. Registrars (trainees) valued the opportunity to work with him as he was a technically excellent surgeon and great teacher (affectionately known as "the Silver Scalpel"). While extensively trained in gastric surgery, he introduced colonoscopy to New Zealand as an alternative and better means of earlier detection of large bowel cancer and also had a leading role in advancing the care of patients with breast cancer.

Michael's contribution extended well beyond the immediate confines of patient care. With his interest in surgical education he served as a RACS Examiner in general surgery 1978-87. He was a member of the National Advisory Committee on Cancer Services 1982-1994. Michael was a member of and subsequently chaired the Ethics Committees of Dunedin Hospital, the Mercy Hospital and the New Zealand Medical Association (NZMA) - in total nearly 30 years. He contributed significantly to the NZMA serving in numerous leadership roles, this culminating in his election as President 1993-94 He served as an elected member of the Otago Hospital Board and subsequently the Otago Area Health Board. Michael was a member of the New Zealand Committee RACS 1976-84 and completed a term as its Chairman. Michael was awarded the OBE in 1968 in recognition of his work in Viet Nam and he also received Vietnamese service awards. He was made a member of the Order of St John in 1982. For his contributions to the NZMA, Michael was awarded a Fellowship in 2004.

In 1994 Michael and Annabel retired to their holiday home in Middlemarch. With time to reflect, Michael exercised his writing skills and wrote his excellent book, "Operation Vietnam" on his experience as a surgeon in Vietnam. In 2006, Michael and Annabel moved to Karori in Wellington to enjoy a change of life style, theatre and music. He authored "Desert Surgeons" and was an active member of the Wellington Medical History Society where as recently as last year he presented a paper on General Practitioner Surgeons and the Waimate Hospital's struggle for survival.

Michael is survived by his wife Annabel, children Anna, Nicki, Andrew, Richard, Sarah, Phillip, 15 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Peter Kitchin

Sources used to compile this entry: [This obituary is based on that prepared for the Dominion Post by Peter Kitchin with assistance from Alastair Grant, John Nacey and members of the family; Republished by kind permission of the President and Council of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons from In Memoriam (].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England