Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Chang, Victor Peter (1936–1991)

by Maxwell J. Coleman

This article was published online in 2014

Victor Peter Chang (1936-1991), cardiac and transplantation surgeon, was born Chang Yam Him on 21 November 1936 at Shanghai, China, eldest of three children of New South Wales-born parents Aubrey Chung Fung (later Aubrey Chang), merchant, and his wife May, née Lee. On their marriage May and Aubrey, who was a partner in a thermos-flask factory in China, settled in Shanghai. With the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War, Aubrey evacuated his family to Hong Kong, then Burma before settling in the Sichuan province of China, where Victor’s primary school education commenced. After full-scale civil war resumed in 1945, the family returned to Hong Kong. He attended the Kowloon Tong Primary School and St Paul’s College until 1950. He was very close to his mother, who died of metastatic breast cancer in 1948.

With his sister, Chang moved to Sydney in 1951. His Aunty Fung and her husband acted as guardians, while his father continued travelling for business. He attended Belmore Boys' High School and Christian Brothers’ High School, Lewisham, before enrolling to study medicine at the University of Sydney in 1956. He won a Commonwealth scholarship and spent a year doing research, graduating with first-class honours (BSc (Med), 1961; MB, BS, 1963). After a residency at St Vincent’s Hospital, Darlinghurst, he was cardiothoracic surgical registrar in 1965. Travelling to England later that year, he worked at St Anthony’s Hospital and St Helier Hospital, both in Surrey, under Aubrey York Mason, and qualified as a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of England (1966). He was appointed registrar in cardiothoracic surgery at the Royal Brompton Hospital in 1968. On 20 April that year at the register office, Sutton, London, he married Ann Lois Simmons, a hair stylist.

Following training at the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota, United States of America, with Dwight McGoon in 1970, Chang was appointed chief resident in 1971. On returning to Australia in 1972 as staff cardiothoracic surgeon at St Vincent’s Hospital, he joined Harry Windsor, who had performed Australia’s first heart transplant in 1968, and Mark Shanahan, his mentor and later surgical partner. He obtained his fellowship of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (1973) and of the American College of Surgeons (1974).

The National Heart Transplant Program was awarded to St Vincent’s Hospital under the direction of Chang in 1984. At the time of his death, the unit had performed 266 heart and twenty-two heart-lung transplants with a success rate the equal of any unit internationally (92 percent one-year and 85 percent five-years survival). He arranged medical and nursing staff exchanges between St Vincent’s and hospitals in South East Asia. Having developed St Vincent’s Heart Valves, the low cost of which made them available for use in Asia and the Pacific, he began work on an artificial heart. He was appointed honorary professor of surgery to the Chinese Academy of Medical Science in Beijing and at the Shanghai Medical School, and was an official advisor on cardiac surgery in Indonesia and Japan. In 1982 he was appointed to the Australia-China Council. His medical diplomacy favourably influenced relations between Australia and Asian countries; for this work and for his contributions to medical science he was appointed AC in 1986. The University of New South Wales conferred a doctorate of medicine honoris causa on him in 1988, for his academic and humanitarian achievement. He was to be voted Australian of the Century at the People’s Choice awards in 1999.

Five feet eight inches (173 cm) tall, Chang had ‘jet-black hair, [a] button nose and bushy brows, [and] gold-rimmed glasses’ (Chang 2001, xii). He was impeccably neat in his dress. A gifted technician with sound clinical judgement, he inspired confidence with his engaging smile and obvious compassion. He had a sense of humour and was a good networker, yet was also humble, shy, and very private. His interests aside from surgery were his family, cars, model making, and Chinese action movies.

Survived by his wife, a daughter and two sons, Chang died on 4 July 1991 at Mosman following two gunshot wounds to the head in a failed extortion attempt; he was cremated. The killing of a surgeon who was widely respected for his talent, kindness, and dedication prompted a national outpouring of shock and grief. Two Malaysian-born Chinese men, Chiew Seng Liew and Phillip Choon Tee Lim, were sentenced to a minimum of twenty years and eighteen years in gaol respectively. A memorial mass was held at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Darlinghurst, and a state funeral service at St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney. He is remembered through the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute at St Vincent’s Hospital, the Dr Victor Chang Science Building at Christian Brothers’ High School, Lewisham, and the Victor Chang Heart Institute and Research Centre, Hyderabad, India.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Canberra Times. ‘Obituary: Dr Victor Chang.’ 5 July 1991, 2
  • Chang, Vanessa. Victor Chang: A Tribute to My Father. Sydney: Pan, 2001.

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Citation details

Maxwell J. Coleman, 'Chang, Victor Peter (1936–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/chang-victor-peter-14816/text26002, published online 2014, accessed online 21 November 2018.

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