Denis Halmagyi 1921 - 2008

1966, left to right: John Fraser, Denis Halmagyi, David Gillett, Miles Irving and Chris Addison

Denis Halmagyi survived the Nazis in World War II, fled from postwar communist Hungary and built a prominent career as a medical scientist in Britain, Australia and the US.

Before intensive care units existed in hospitals, Halmagyi was creating animal models of the sort of catastrophic illness and injury that are treated in such units today, trying to work out why and how patients die. He reached several counter-intuitive conclusions, mostly ignored at the time, but which have since influenced intensive care treatments.

Halmagyi, who has died at 87, was born Denes in Budapest, the only child of Ferenc and Rozsi Halmagyi, both dentists. His secondary education was at a German-speaking school, with English lessons at home. After his parents separated when he was in his early teens, he entered medical school in 1939 in Szeged, where he met Alice Timar, another student.

In June 1944, the retreating Nazis, suspecting that Hungary was seeking peace with the Allies, took over the country. Jewish Hungarians were threatened with extermination; Alice and her parents were sent to Auschwitz, where Karoly and Lilly Timar were murdered.

By October 1944, the universities were closed and male students were conscripted to fight the advancing Soviet Army. Halmagyi, imprisoned during the six-week siege of Budapest, escaped in February 1945 and walked to the village of Kistelek, where his father was practising dentistry. Graduating in medicine later in 1945, he worked at the university hospital in Szeged. Alice survived Auschwitz and the couple were married.

Halmagyi took an immediate interest in medical research, having his first paper published in 1950. He produced 43 international papers in the next six years, and a monograph in German on pulmonary circulation.

Life could be good in a small university town, if people followed the party line. Halmagyi and Alice, a pediatrician, could walk home for lunch and, in summer, swim in the river Tisza. But Hungarians fed up with communism rebelled in 1956. The Russians suppressed the revolution but about 250,000 people, including Halmagyi, Alice and their nine-year-old son Michael, fled.

Halmagyi's work on the lung and its circulation was known internationally and he became a researcher in Wales. By 1958, looking for better opportunities, he had offers from Dr Julius Comroe, a founder of modern respiratory physiology, in San Francisco, and from Professor Ruthven Blackburn, of Sydney University. Alice, concerned about McCarthyism in the US, wanted to be as far away from Americans and Russians as possible.

Halmagyi arrived in Sydney that year as the inaugural Adolph Basser Research Fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians. The next seven years were productive scientifically, especially in collaboration with John Colebatch, who became a professor of respiratory medicine. He produced 26 papers, some still cited, mainly dealing with regulation of the pulmonary circulation in animal models of drowning, hemorrhagic and septic shock and pulmonary embolism. In 1965 he was appointed the director of the Gordon Craig Research Laboratory at Sydney University. In the next 10 years 35 papers appeared, with various coauthors.

His marriage to Alice, who practised in Petersham, broke up and in 1971 he married Maureen Lloyd-Smith. He was made a fellow of the RACP, and awarded a doctor of medicine and a doctor of science by Sydney University. He received a Fulbright fellowship in 1973, working in the surgery department and intensive care unit at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital while Maureen worked at the United Nations.

Halmagyi resigned from Sydney University in 1975 to build a laboratory at Columbia. However, the health funding system defeated him and he left after two years, moving to Lincoln, Maine, where the Halmagyis became part of the town fabric. He worked hard as the local physician-cardiologist-intensivist, speeding from Bangor to Lincoln in his dayglow orange BMW; the local magistrate was his patient.

Returning to Australia in 1984, he set up a private specialist medical practice in several locations, including Broadway and Baulkham Hills, working like this for 20 years. It was less glamorous medicine than high-flying research into changes in the heart, circulation, lungs and metabolism in acute catastrophic cases such as septicemia, pulmonary embolism and drowning.

Yet he never held grudges about the past and always focused on the present. This way he had reinvented himself several times. Besides, his later career gave him more time with his three grandchildren, his 3000-book library and his 400-plus recordings of just about every opera ever recorded. He said that science was a discipline to be pursued with passion, while art was a passion to be pursued with discipline.

After Maureen moved into a nursing home two years ago, Halmagyi went to hostel accommodation nearby. She survives him, with his son, Michael, and his family, and Maureen's daughter.

Tony Stephens
By permission of the Sydney Morning Herald