Gye, Richard Spencer Butler

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BSc (Med) 1953 MB BS 1955 Hon MD 1993 DPhil (Oxon) MA (Oxon) FRACS FRCS (Eng)

Richard Gye developed the first academic unit of neurosurgery in Australia, and became the first full-time Dean of Medicine within the Faculty in 1974, a post he held for 15 years.

After leaving Knox Grammar School, Richard enlisted in the Royal Australian Navy, serving as a Commissioned Officer until the end of World War II. In 1948, he enrolled in Medicine at the University of Sydney, part of a large post-war intake.

His interest in neurology began early in his medical studies when Burkitt, Professor of Anatomy, requested that he review the vascular components of the optic radiation of the human brain. He was one of the first students to spend a year with Dr (later Professor) Peter Bishop whilst working for a Bachelor of Science (Medical) degree in the field of neurophysiology. He graduated with honours in 1953, obtaining, his MB BS, also with honours, in 1955.

Richard was then appointed Resident Medical Officer at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital where he became interested in surgery and gained his Fellowship of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons. He was later appointed Professorial Surgical Registrar to John Loewenthal, and was awarded a Nuffield Dominion Travelling Fellowship in 1960 to further his studies and clinical experience in neurosurgery in Oxford.

Dr Pennybacker, Head of the Department of Neurological Surgery at the Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford, accepted Richard as House Officer, later appointing him as Senior Registrar to the Infirmary, one of four neurosurgical centres established in the 1930s and situated in London, Manchester, Edinburgh and Oxford. (The Oxford Unit was developed by Professor Sir Hugh Cairns, originally from South Australia.) Providing neurosurgical services to over four million people, the demands in the Department were heavy and constant, and Richard was grateful for the wealth of training, guidance and clinical experience he obtained. In 1961 he was admitted as a Member of Worcester College, Oxford, and was awarded a Doctor of Philosophy for his thesis, A Clinical and Experimental Study of Chronic Sub-dural Effusions, based on extensive clinical and laboratory studies, demonstrating that postural intracranial pressure changes were responsible for the lesions following mild head injuries in elderly patients with cerebral atrophy.

Richard returned to Sydney in 1964 to take up the position of Senior Lecturer in Surgery (Neurosurgery) at the University of Sydney, where he developed the first academic unit of Neurosurgery in Australia. His clinical work took place at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, where he was later made Head of the Department of Neurosurgery.

Richard was also appointed Head of Neurosurgery at the Repatriation General Hospital, Concord where he and James McLeod integrated the practice of neurology and neurosurgery. In response to a request from the Health Department in Fiji, they visited Suva at least twice a year providing a clinical neurology and neurosurgery service over a period of five years.

In 1968, they began to investigate the possibility of peripheral nerve transplants for loss of more than 5cm of nerve in soldiers wounded in Vietnam. These extensive wounds were difficult to treat by conventional techniques, and they proposed to examine the feasibility of transplants in experimental animals. John Pollard (now Bushell Professor of Neurology) undertook the project as a PhD study in 1969, and demonstrated that with the use of immunosuppressive agents, regeneration through transplants resulted in a good recovery of nerve function in rats. Mindful of the possible use of nerve transplants in humans, he devised a method of storing nerves for transplantation by freeze-drying and sterilising by irradiation.

Following the suggestion by Miles Little that nerve transplants could benefit leprosy patients with severe neuropathy, Richard and McLeod travelled to the East Arm Leprosy Hospital in Darwin. John Hargrave, Medical Director of the Hospital, felt that some of his patients could benefit from nerve transplantation. Although Richard and Hargrave had reservations that any significant regeneration within the conduit would occur since the nerve lesions were up to 20cm in length and not recent, they performed nerve transplants in a selected group of patients. The patients were post-operatively treated with an immunosuppressive agent, and after three years, two of the 23 patients treated regained good protective sensation, five had a partial recovery and there was no evidence of improvement in the remainder. Despite its limited success, the project did reveal that transplants could be used to treat severe nerve lesions provided that they were inserted with a minimum of delay after the injury had occurred.

In 1970, Richard was offered the position of Head of the Department of Neurosurgery following the impending retirement of his mentor, Dr Pennybacker, in 1971. After discussions with the Chairman of the Hospital Board of Directors, Richard accepted the invitation on the basis that he would be provided with modern facilities with the Department to be situated in the new John Radcliffe Hospital at Headington, Oxford, still under construction. The Department was also to receive increased funding for development and to further its research. With these assurances he moved to Oxford in 1971.

Though he set about supporting the integration of the impressive neurosciences group in the Radcliffe Infirmary and associated hospitals, he was disturbed to find that new developments in the NHS had led to the Boards of Management of Hospitals, including the Radcliffe Infirmary Board, being disbanded and replaced by Area Health Authorities. As time went by, it became clear that the new Area Health Authority would not honour the agreements made by the former Board, and that the poor working conditions in the Hospital would persist. Thus when asked by Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir Bruce Williams to return to the University of Sydney as the first full-time Dean of Medicine, Richard accepted the offer, taking up his post in 1974. According to Professor Young:

His reputation not only as a distinguished clinical and academic neurosurgeon but also as a medical administrator was recognised when he became the first full-time Dean of the Faculty of Medicine in 1974. At the same time he was appointed academic Head of Neurosurgery at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and worked closely with Professor Jim McLeod in developing liaison and integration between the surgical and medical components of clinical neurological sciences.
Following Richard’s appointment as Dean, the Faculty of Medicine underwent enormous change and development. He was responsible for undertaking the establishment of the new Westmead Hospital as Australia’s first fully designed university hospital. During his Deanship a total of 43 new chairs together with supporting staff and facilities were established in the Faculty of Medicine. These positions were in a number of areas including Westmead Hospital, Concord Hospital, Sydney Eye Hospital, in Occupational Health, and in the Department of Public Health (which he saved from threats to its very existence) as well as in the older teaching hospitals, Royal Prince Alfred and Royal North Shore.[1]
After preparing and successfully implementing the new five-year curriculum despite his reservations on its intensive nature, Richard reintroduced a 6-year curriculum to the Faculty to lessen the pressure on undergraduate students and teachers in 1986.[1]
As Dean, Richard took an active interest in each of the teaching hospitals, chairing their Boards of Medical Studies, as well as an interest in the administration of a number of institutions and hospitals. He was a Member of the Board of Directors of Sydney Hospital, the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, the United Dental Hospital, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and Area Health Service and Western Sydney Area Health Service.
The Postgraduate Committee in Medicine expanded its work and increased its value under the leadership of Professor Gye. The Menzies School of Health Research and the Centenary Institute were amongst his specially favoured enterprises to which he gave invaluable support.
As Dean he had commitments to the New South Wales Medical Board, the Menzies Foundation, the Ramaciotti Foundations, the Australian Medical Council and the NSW State Cancer Council all of which called for his help, help that was freely given.
It is fair to say that Richard Gye was one of the earlier proposers of the policy of devolution in the University. He could see the value of the Faculty of Medicine developing some autonomy and independence to the benefit of medical teaching and research. He also proposed, at different times, the possibility of a graduate degree being developed within the Medical School of the University of Sydney.[1]

In 1988, Richard was appointed Officer of the Order of Australia for services to medicine.

Since his retirement as Dean, Richard has continued to actively support the Faculty and was instrumental in the development of the University’s Department of Neurosurgery. Before retiring from the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in 1992, he was also engaged as Visiting Professor in Neurosurgery at the Frenchay Hospital, Bristol. Following his retirement, he has been appointed Consultant Emeritus to the Neurosciences Centre and has worked as a medico-legal Consultant in private practice.

In 1992, Richard became Emeritus Professor of the University of Sydney.

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Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) Gye, Richard Spencer Butler. Faculty of Medicine Online Museum and Archive, University of Sydney.

An alternate version appears in: Mellor, L. 150 Years, 150 Firsts: The People of the Faculty of Medicine (2006) Sydney, Sydney University Press.