Vince Munro 1936-2009

Vince Munro

Vince Munro, head of pathology at St Vincent's Hospital in Darlinghurst for more than 30 years, was a ''go-to'' man because his contacts spread all over the hospital, and beyond. Solving problems was his joy and he was particularly good at mediating between hospital bureaucracy and members of his department.

Actual administration was perhaps not his strongest point, but he made sure he had an able head of laboratory for the nitty-gritty things that made the department run. Meanwhile, he was working, teaching and mentoring, and making his department a world-class facility.

Vincent Frederick Albert Munro was born on October 2, 1936 in Bondi, the only child of Vincent Munro and his wife, Elizabeth Merrett. By the time Vince was a teenager, his parents were running a corner shop on Edgecliff Road and the family lived above it. Vince went to school at Christian Brothers at Rose Bay and the most influential person in his life then was his paternal grandfather, a retired teacher.

After the Leaving Certificate, he went to the University of Sydney on a Commonwealth scholarship to study medicine. He graduated in 1961 and worked at the Mater hospitals in Sydney and Newcastle.

In 1968 he married Virginia, who was also a Munro but not related. They were divorced in the 1990s. In 1970 Munro took Virginia and their new daughter, Catharine, to Papua New Guinea as part of his rotation at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. By this time, he was a pathology trainee but PNG also gave him trauma experience, especially with the then common light aircraft crashes.

On returning to Australia, Munro's mentor, Dr Dormer Smith, suggested he apply for the position in the anatomical pathology department at St Vincent's that Smith was vacating. Munro got the job and stayed until he retired in 2002 as head of department.

Munro was particularly interested in dermatopathology and reported on all the skin pathology in the department. His cramped office was usually filled with dermatologists and departmental staff and with makeshift projection equipment as he patiently took trainees through the complexities of skin pathology.

His workload was heavy because he was required not only to report on surgical specimens but also to teach both medical undergraduates and postgraduates. The reputation of the department grew under his leadership and there was competition among trainees for the limited number of positions available.

Munro was elected Public Service Association representative for all pathology staff specialists at St Vincent's. He became president of the Australian Dermatohistopathology society, which had been formed in 1979 with him as an original committee member.

In 1979, he spent a sabbatical year in Innsbruck then took the family around Europe in a car, camping in a three-room tent. In the Bois de Bologne outside Paris, the perfect camping place turned out, in the morning light, to belong to a bikie group.

In 1984, after studying in America with Margaret Billingham, who developed the means of interpreting transplant biospies, Munro worked with Victor Chang and Phillip Spratt at St Vincent's on 14-year-old Fiona Coote's first heart transplant.

Munro's role was to determine, by biopsy, the rejection rate after transplant. As the transplant program increased, this work was often after hours, and always urgent. Today St Vincent's has one of the highest heart transplant survival rates in the world.

A great deal of what was learned about compromised immune systems with transplant work was used later when HIV/AIDS arrived in Australia. St Vincent's came under fire in the early days for refusing to perform autopsies on people who had died of the disease but the hospital did not have the equipment to ensure the safety of staff. Arrangements were eventually made for the autopsies to be done at the morgue in Glebe.

Away from work, Munro sailed. Each summer the family would pack into his yacht and spend a couple of weeks at Pittwater.

He also loved music. He had been a member of his school choir and as an adult subscribed to Opera Australia and regularly attended concerts at the Sydney Recital Hall. He was fond of saying, with reference to the Blues Brothers, that his house had music of ''both kinds - opera and classical", although he also enjoyed trad jazz.

He read for pleasure - the Byzantine period in Italy and the history of the church absorbed him - and peppered his conversation with anecdotes about the early church fathers and their behaviour. He was interested in the traditions and liturgy of the church and regularly attended Mass.

All of his hobbies and interests came back to his enjoyment of people, and he loved to entertain. His cooking was limited - visitors could have anything so long as it could be barbecued - but the red wine was generously poured.

Vince Munro is survived by Virginia, their children Catharine and Patrick, their spouses and three grandchildren. There will be a memorial service today at 10am in the St Vincent's Clinic function room on the ground floor.

Harriet Veitch
By permission of the Sydney Morning Herald