Mark Shanahan AO 1932 - 2008

Mark Shanahan with his protege Victor Chang

Mark Shanahan was a young and naive medical student when he first put his finger inside a human heart. Shanahan had hung around the emergency department and operating rooms at St Vincent's Hospital, Sydney, where Dr Harry Windsor had allowed him to touch a beating heart. He was stunned.

A few days later, Shanahan held a patient's lungs to one side while Windsor exposed the heart, put his finger inside and enlarged the opening in the mitral valve. "Would you like to put your finger in and feel the valve?" Windsor asked the young student, telling him how to go about it. The experience began a brilliant career.

Shanahan, who died on Thursday at 75, was a pioneer of heart surgery in Australia, working on the earliest transplants, heart valve replacement and coronary artery bypass surgery and introducing new techniques such as cardioplegia, a way to preserve the heart during surgery.

He was mentor to, and later medical partner of Dr Victor Chang and became chairman of the St Vincent's cardiothoracic unit. His patients included Fiona Coote and Fred Hollows.

Mark Xavier Shanahan died of cancer at his home in Merimbula, on the NSW South Coast. He was the youngest of three children born in Sydney to William Patrick Shanahan, the last of 12 children of an Irish family, and his wife, Barbara (Astill). Mark was a puny child, self-conscious about his pigeon chest. His pharmacist father died when he was four and he was raised by his mother, who ran a hair salon, and grandparents. They moved around, from Lakemba to Coogee and Dulwich Hill. Barbara married Lenny Jenkins, a bookmaker's clerk, loved by Mark.

A brilliant student and fine cricketer, Mark topped his class at St Joseph's College, Hunters Hill, and entered Sydney University's medical school at 15. He graduated with honours at 21, then the youngest Australian to complete a six-year medical degree.

He entered St Vincent's as a registrar, working with Sir Russell (later Lord) Brock, who pioneered the technique of deep hypothermia to correct intracardiac defects. Shanahan sang in a jazz band called the Allstars, and Windsor warned him not to jeopardise his career.

Shanahan went to St Helier's Hospital, London, in 1957 to complete his general surgical training with Aubrey York Mason and to St Francis Hospital in Long Island, New York, filling one of the few training posts in cardio-thoracic surgery. Along the way he married Josephine Dillon, a nurse.

In 1963, Shanahan returned to St Vincent's, where he saw out his career. He took on his first intern, Victor Chang, the same year. The two men formed a close-knit relationship, first as teacher and student, and later as partners and friends.

Shanahan encouraged and nurtured Chang's early career, sending him to train with Mason in London. When Shanahan's brother Tim died in 1978, Chang embraced him and asked if he could be his brother.

Together with Windsor, they formed what most considered the best cardiothoracic team in Australia. They were an extraordinary and unusual team: three very different personalities who worked well together. Shanahan was less outgoing than his colleagues.

Shanahan had been involved in preparations for the first heart transplants; Windsor performed Australia's first on Richard Pye in 1968. In 1969, Windsor and Shanahan carried out the first coronary artery bypass graft. Along with Peter Heery, they pioneered such surgical advancements as mechanical heart assistance and repair of mechanical defects following acute heart attack.

When Windsor retired in 1979, Shanahan took over as leader of the cardiothoracic unit, until his own retirement in 1992. After Chang's murder in 1991, he stayed on for the year to assist Alan Farnsworth and Phillip Spratt in extending the St Vincent's legacy. But Chang's death had badly shaken Shanahan. Like others at St Vincent's, he asked himself: "What's the use of carrying on when someone like Victor is killed so pointlessly?"

He had expected to meet Chang on the morning of July 4, 1991. When told the awful news, he immediately telephoned the Chang family home, where Victor's wife, Ann, confirmed the tragedy. Shanahan had talked Chang into becoming a cardiac surgeon. After doing a coronary bypass, he drove to his friend's home to support Ann and the children.

Shanahan was affected by the heavy losses in early heart surgery. At the beginning of his career, just one-third of patients survived surgery: at the end, the survival rate had risen to more than 97 per cent. He was made an Officer in the Order of Australia (AO) in 1988.

Mark Shanahan was revered by those who worked with him. He taught many students who became internationally prominent surgeons, particularly in India, and fought for the admission of Dr Inderjit Virdi to the Royal Australasian Collegeof Surgeons, after Virdi had twice been rejected.

The heart surgeon was attended by St Vincent's staff throughout his long illness. He is survived by his wife, Josephine, children Antoinette, William and Paul, and eight grandchildren. His funeral service will be held at St Joseph's Catholic Church, Merimbula, on Thursday.

Tony Stephens
By permission of the Sydney Morning Herald