Doug Tracy 1926-2009

Doug Tracy, a noted surgeon with a gentle touch and infectious smile, had gained two university blues for boxing, a sport now opposed by medical associations in most developed countries.

He revelled in other activities that allowed him to exercise his excellent mind-body co-ordination, manifested in his operating technique: golf, tennis and later, painting. He called his autobiography Inside The Ropes - A Surgeon's Life.

Graham Douglas Tracy, who has died in Port Macquarie at 82, was born in Sydney, the eldest of three sons of Haydn Tracy and his wife Florence. He described his mother, who died in childbirth when Doug was seven, as "the perfect human being". She had boasted that her boy, then five, would become a famous surgeon.

The family was living in South Australia at the time of her death, which was concealed from him by well-meaning relatives, and he was distressed when a schoolmate blurted out the truth six months later. This traumatic experience was thought to be responsible for occasional panic attacks in later life. His strong attachment to his mother was reinforced when, as a young doctor, he stumbled across her gravestone, hitherto unknown to him, in Gore Hill cemetery.

His father, who had served in the Camel Corps in World War I, brought up his three boys with a firm hand. His work with an oil company led to frequent moves around Australia. At Port Lincoln, Doug saw the Pamir, one of the last of the clippers, in full sail. He completed high school at Taree, winning a scholarship to study medicine at Sydney University.

After graduation in 1948 he became an intern at Royal North Shore Hospital and married Nola Buckley "behind the altar" in a Catholic church because he had been raised an Anglican. Despite antipathy between the Anglican Tracys and the Irish Catholic Traceys, Doug did not restore the "e" when he later became a Catholic. His family life with Nola and their seven children, in a marriage of 59 years, was central to him.

He began surgical training but had difficulty passing the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons examinations. Dismayed by repeated failures, and now with three small children, he was on the point of giving up surgical aspirations until he went to England as a ship's surgeon.

Passing the London FRCS examination, he took up a research position with Professor John Kinmonth, a pioneer vascular surgeon, at St Thomas's Hospital. Kinmonth was one of the first surgeons to use synthetic arterial grafts, made from old terylene shirts by his wife Kathleen, to replace the diseased aorta. After further training in Cleveland, Ohio, Tracy was appointed assistant to Professor Frank Rundle at Royal North Shore. He later practised as Rundle's junior partner.

After Rundle was appointed dean of the new medical school at the University of NSW, Tracy became head of the university's surgery department in 1959. University and medical politics in Sydney were torrid at that time and some at North Shore regarded Tracy's move as an unforgivable defection.

Tracy shared Rundle's dream of an American-style university department of surgery with full-time academic staff. A clinical services block and animal laboratories were built at Prince Henry Hospital and a number of talented academic surgeons joined, including urologist Joe Murnaghan and cardiac surgeon Bruce Johnstone. Like Tracy, both were short in stature and students dubbed the trio "the three mouseketeers". However, the dream foundered and the hospital site was sold to developers.

One advantage of Prince Henry was the nine-hole golf course, developed with the help of prisoners from Long Bay jail. Tracy practised his game in his spare time. His book Golf Dissected By A Surgeon is a little gem of wit and golfing wisdom.

In 1968 he led the first civilian surgical team to Vung Tau, South Vietnam, and later served as a colonel in the army medical corps reserve. When St Vincent's Hospital transferred allegiance from Sydney University to the University of NSW in 1969, he became foundation professor of surgery there and built an outstanding academic vascular surgical department. His reputation as a caring and skilful vascular surgeon attracted patients.

He chaired the board of examiners at the college of surgeons and served as president, lectured in Commonwealth countries and Ireland, and held visiting professorships in the US and Asia, drawing on different health care systems to urge hospital reform in Australia. He was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1985. In his retirement he wrestled, not always successfully, with using a computer and set up his own website.

Doug Tracy's calm acceptance of his impending death from cancer was inspirational. Declaring it was "quite a bit of fun", he arranged his own funeral and helped with this obituary. He is survived by Nola, their children Vicki, Steven, Lyn, Jo, Louise, Jackie and Patrick, and eight grandchildren.

Tom Hugh
By permission of the Sydney Morning Herald