David Stephen 1928-2009

David Stephen

David Stephen, a gentleman of the old school and never a follower of fashion, was somewhat eccentric in his love of things from olden times, especially cars. Yet he presided over a technological revolution in diagnostic radiology, as plain films gave way to modern scans. He practised his profession until four weeks before he died of acute leukaemia, just short of his 81st birthday.

The younger son of Brenda Deloitte and her husband, Rev John Stephen, the rector of St Matthias' Anglican Church in Paddington, David Deloitte Stephen went to Sydney Grammar School and graduated in medicine from Sydney University in 1953. After hospital internships, he specialised in diagnostic radiology, becoming the director of Royal Prince Alfred Hospital's X-ray department in 1964 and running it for 11 years.

His tweed hat, vintage MG, quirky wit and Kipling quotes hinted at Monsieur Hulot, but his modesty, diffidence and self-deprecating humour disguised a high level of professional expertise. He was the radiologists' radiologist in Sydney.

David Stephen became the major figure in NSW in shifting diagnostic radiology from plain films and simple contrast studies to complex high-tech investigations - angiography and other interventions, mammography, ultrasound and CT, then magnetic resonance imaging.

Organ imaging exploded in those years. The impact was greatest in major teaching hospitals such as RPAH. As each new technology emerged, he mastered it and taught it. He invented two different needles for insertion into the liver or aorta to minimise possible complications of interventional radiology.

With the postgraduate committee in medicine at Sydney University, David Stephen instituted the first lecture course for trainee radiologists in NSW towards a diploma in diagnostic radiology. He educated a generation of radiologists; four of his RPAH registrars topped the college exams in Australasia.

He saw the replacement of the era of general radiologists by subspecialists as a necessary change to achieve optimum patient care, especially in a major referral hospital such as RPAH. He struggled to obtain the equipment necessary to keep his department and his hospital abreast of rapid new developments, experiencing setbacks and frustrations that exemplified the recent history of chronic underfunding of state health services in NSW. He had a natural aversion to medical politics, yet he never stopped trying.

Despite his fervent belief in complex hospital radiology, the perennial budget crises eventually drove him into private practice in 1975, although he was a consultant at Hornsby, Sydney Adventist and Rachel Forster hospitals.

David Stephen loved music, especially organ music. He understood how pipe organs and CT scanners worked, and he serviced the family cars. But difficulty in opening tins of shoe polish after the rotating side lever was abandoned sparked an animated correspondence with the manufacturers.

In 1962 he married Lucy Ruth Conry, a former nurse and air hostess, with whom he had two children. Family holidays were spent relaxing at their house at Hawks Nest, or skiing, which he took up at the age of 50. Retirement should have been a happy respite, but it coincided with the onset of his wife's Alzheimer's and he devoted himself to caring for her at home until near her death last year.

David Stephen is survived by his children, Katherine and Alastair, and by Marlay, his elder brother.

By permission of the Sydney Morning Herald