Geoff McDonald 1920-2008

It can be hard to live in the shadow of a great man but Geoff McDonald followed his father into medicine then carved a distinguished career as his own man. His father, Sir Charles George ("CG") McDonald, was a doctor of note, specialising in thoracic diseases, and a founder and president of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians.

The son, Geoff, was a consultant physician, also specialising in chest problems, who also became president of the college, 20 years after his father. Through his life, Geoff McDonald drew inspiration from his father, particularly his recommendation that doctors listen to their patients. He was noted for his bedside manner and believed, in later years, that medicine was getting "superspecialised". He enjoyed being a consultant rather than a micro-manager, one who looked at the whole patient to work out what was going wrong.

Geoffrey Lance McDonald, who has died aged 87, was the eldest of the five children born to CG and his wife, Elsie Hosie. The family's early years were in a house in Hurstville; the family lived at one end and CG ran his general practice at the other.

The family was noteworthy for its "blessed obsession with education" and its devotion to the Catholic Church. As a six-year-old, Geoff spent a year as a boarder, with his younger brother Phil, at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Convent School at Bowral. In later years he remembered it as a tough but character-moulding experience. He then went to Waverley College before taking his Leaving Certificate at Riverview College, where he was dux in 1937. He then lived in St John's College at the University of Sydney, and took a BA in classics before going onto medicine.

In 1942 McDonald fell in love with a fellow student, Marcella Nolan of Rose Bay. The first time he saw her was in the anatomy dissecting room, and admired her pluck and focus when she was asked to dissect a male cadaver's genitalia in the presence of a number of chortling young men. Over the next few years Geoff and Marcella became inseparable and by the time they married in 1946 they were both resident doctors at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, where his father was the honorary assistant-physician in the tuberculosis clinic.

However, the hospital's superintendent, Dr Herbert Schlink, had established a rule that married couples were not allowed to stay on as resident doctors, and Marcella completed her medical training at the NSW Blood Bank. She then took leave from medicine for 20 years to be the homemaker and mother to their five children.

McDonald became a consultant physician in Macquarie Street and an honorary medical consultant to the hospital. He was a tutor in medicine at the University of Sydney from 1951, as his father had been since 1938, and was later a clinical lecturer and, eventually, the first warden of the clinical school at the Royal Prince Alfred. In 1968 he suffered a deep vein thrombosis in his leg. He needed an assistant in Macquarie Street, and Marcella took bridging courses, and with his tutoring, returned to medicine and continued as his partner until he retired in 1994.

He was a member of council at the Australian National University in Canberra from 1966 to 1974 and became vice-president of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians in 1976. He was then president from 1978 to 1980. Three years later he was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Medicine by the University of Sydney. In 1988 he edited a book, Roll Call of the RACP, which was biographies of the 355 fellows and members of the college who had died between its foundation in 1938 and 1975.

McDonald was renowned for his rigorous, analytical thinking, his high ethical standards and his extremely methodical habits. He was a keen gardener and handyman and claimed, somewhat unconvincingly, that if he had not studied medicine he should have been a motor mechanic.

When Marcella developed Alzheimer's disease in the mid-1990s, McDonald cared for her until she needed institutional care. After her death last year, he submitted with compelling stoicism and typically self-mocking humour to the progressive loss of physical stature, mobility and mental clarity through his age and osteoporosis, which made him bowed and frail but no less determined than he had been in his prime.

Geoff McDonald is survived by his brother John, a retired pediatrician, five children, Helen, Charles, Tim, Anne and Geoff - four medical practitioners and one social worker/psychotherapist - 12 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

Harriet Veitch and Tim McDonald
By permission of the Sydney Morning Herald