Windsor, Harry M J

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MB 1939 BS 1945

Harry Windsor performed the first heart transplant operation in Australia in 1968 at St Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney.

Harry Windsor was born on 27 October 1914 in Cork, Ireland, where his mother had gone to be with her relatives at the outbreak of World War I. His father, a Ship’s Surgeon, had been on his way to Australia when war was announced, so Harry didn’t meet him until he was 16 months old, and he and his mother had made the voyage to Australia. Once here, he spent his childhood between New Farm in Brisbane and Gore in Northern Queensland.

In his memoirs, The Heart of a Surgeon, Harry recounts his first medical memory: Being snugly rugged between my father and groom in the sulky during rounds (unwittingly learning that long hours, discipline, sacrifice and concern were all part of the medical life) and being shown the red crosses on the front doors of some houses in Brisbane during the influenza pandemic of 1919.[1]

After schooling in Brisbane, he enrolled in a Science degree at the University of Queensland but transferred to the University of Sydney to study Medicine after successfully completing his first year. He graduated from Medicine with honours in 1939.

He began his career at St Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney, as a Resident Medical Officer, “already committed to a surgical career, inspired by the many hours spent in practical demonstrations with his father”.[1]

However, with the outbreak of World War II, Harry became engaged in military service. Between 1941 and 1946, he served as an army Major in both Papua New Guinea and Singapore. Even the bleakness of his wartime experiences could not dampen his inspired interest in thoracic surgery. In 1946, he returned to St Vincent’s for a year before leaving for England to work in the Middlesex Thoracic Unit at Harefield, London and in the North East Regional Unit at Shotley Bridge, Newcastle on Tyne. In his memoirs, he notes that both of these units were concerned “mainly with the surgery of pulmonary neoplasm, infection and tuberculosis, the latter to prove of great value to me later when dealing with chest injuries”.[1]

When he returned to St Vincent’s in 1949, he was appointed General Surgeon, but he sought and was later given an honorary appointment as Thoracic Surgeon. As colleague Mark Shanahan[1] recalls:

Lung surgery was no problem and began at once, but the first heart operation, a closed mitral valvotomy, was not until 1951. Other notable achievements followed, but progress was slow as the facilities were limited.[1]

Harry performed the first cardiac valve replacement in Australia in 1963, and the first heart transplant operation in Australia in 1968. The first heart transplant patient survived six weeks.[1] Another heart transplant was carried out in 1974 with more success, and the operation was considered to be the “stepping stone and the inspiration to those responsible for the establishment and success of the current Australian Cardiac Transplant Program”.[1]

In his memoirs, Harry notes the fundamental challenge to the concept of death that the pioneering of cardiac transplant raised and the inevitable tragedy for the donor:

The importance of the heart beat and spontaneous respiration in deciding whether a person is alive or dead has been deeply rooted in the minds of all races. The universal understanding of death demanded cessation of all cerebral, respiratory and cardiac activity, in short, a corpse in the morgue. Cardiac transplantation and the need for a donor heart challenged this necessity; something more accurate was required…. When the heart stops, irreversible brain damage occurs within four to five minutes and the patient never reawakens, but if prompt action is taken, the brain can be kept alive even though the heart remains inactive… good for the recipient, bad for the donor…[1]

Harry continued to work at St Vincent’s Hospital until his death in 1987. During that time he continued to specialise in cardiothoracic and cardiovascular surgery, and also made many visits to hospitals in China to work with and train their surgeons. He was also responsible for the establishment of a program which enabled Chinese surgeons to visit hospitals in Australia and learn from our institutions. In his tribute to Harry, Mark Shanahan concludes:

Harry was a scientist in his approach to Medicine, but he was a most humanitarian doctor and always conscious of his patient as a person with many needs other than his surgical skills. He was a scholar, but a practical one rather than an academic one… Those of us who practise in the field of cardiothoracic surgery and its related specialities throughout Australia and all those who owe an allegiance to St Vincent’s Hospital, are indebted to this truly great man for what he has created and left to us.[1]

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Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) Windsor, Harry M J. 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.