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Dunlop, Sir Ernest Edward (Weary) (1907–1993)

by Michele C. Horne and Katie Anne Mills

This article was published online in 2019

Sir Ernest Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop (1907–1993), surgeon, army medical officer, war veterans’ advocate, and public figure, was born on 12 July 1907 at Wangaratta, Victoria, younger of two sons of Victorian-born parents James Henry Dunlop, farmer, and his wife Alice Emily Maud, née Payne. The family lived at Stewarton. While Alice recuperated from a difficult second birth, her twin sisters cared for the boy at nearby Major Plains. Ernest attended the local primary school and Benalla High School, boarding during the week with an aunt. James had purchased Summerlea, a mixed wheat and sheep farm, near Stewarton in 1910; he sold it in 1922, after which the family lived together at Benalla. Young Dunlop completed his Leaving certificate in 1923 and commenced an apprenticeship with William McCall Say, a local pharmacist, the following year.

In 1926 Dunlop enrolled in a correspondence course at the Victorian College of Pharmacy. He moved to Melbourne the following year and, in 1928, in his final college examinations, won the college’s gold medal and the H. T. Tompsitt Memorial Scholarship. Having decided on a career as a medical practitioner, he transferred to the University of Melbourne (MBBS, 1934; MS, 1937) in 1929, winning a residential scholarship to Ormond College in his second year. It was during an Ormond initiation ritual that Dunlop acquired the nickname ‘Weary,’ being a reference to his last name, which he shared with a tyre company; yet tired and weary he was not. An industrious and hard-working student, he was known to keep long hours, often surviving on little sleep. Despite this, his passion for life and a larrikin streak attracted him to participate in the richness of college life. During Ormond College’s commencement revels, he rode into the city on the back of a lorry dressed as a fairy, his willingness to be involved in all manner of escapades ensuring his popularity. Dunlop also demonstrated a passion for defending moral causes that would stay with him for the rest of his life. In 1932 he was part of a group of angry students who manhandled the communist activist Sam White at a university debating society meeting, Dunlop having perceived that White had tarnished the university’s reputation.

Tall—six feet four inches (193 cm)—and strongly built, Dunlop was accomplished in sport, securing a half-Blue for boxing (1931) and a Blue for rugby union (1932). He was the university’s amateur heavyweight boxing champion for 1932, and represented Australia in the third rugby Test against New Zealand in July that year. Fearing that he might lose ground in his studies, he declined a place in the Australian team in 1933, but played again in the first Test against New Zealand in 1934.

An enthusiastic citizen-soldier, Dunlop was appointed captain, Australian Army Medical Corps, in 1935. Commissioned in the Australian Imperial Force on 13 November 1939 in London, he was posted in January 1940 to the medical section of the AIF’s Overseas Base in Palestine, and promoted in May to major. In the Greek campaign (April 1941) he served as AIF medical liaison officer between the British headquarters in Athens and the corps headquarters in the forward areas, gaining a reputation for fearlessness. Having assisted with the withdrawal to Crete, he was evacuated to Egypt in early May because of illness. The next month he was posted as senior surgeon of the 2/2nd Casualty Clearing Station at Tobruk, Libya. In July he assumed temporary command of the CCS, which moved to Egypt later the same month. Obtaining approval for a mobile operating unit—a concept he had long advocated—he raised and, from November, briefly commanded No. 1 Mobile Operating Unit, before returning to the 2/2nd CCS.

The unit arrived in Java in February 1942 and formed the nucleus of No. 1 Allied General Hospital, which opened at Bandoeng (Bandung) that month. Dunlop was promoted to temporary lieutenant colonel (substantive, 1945) and placed in command. Staff and patients entered captivity when the Allied forces capitulated to the Japanese on 12 March. As the commander of Commonwealth troops, Dunlop fostered education, sports, and entertainments under difficult conditions. In January 1943 the Japanese dispatched a column of some nine hundred men under his command, via Singapore, to south-west Thailand. The men of Dunlop Force were put to work constructing the Burma-Thailand railway.

Despite suffering intermittently from amoebic dysentery, beriberi, tropical ulcers, and malaria, Dunlop used his generalist surgical knowledge to save countless lives. He received supplies of food, money, and medicines from the heroic Thai merchant and resistance worker Boon Pong (Boonpong Sirivejjabhandu), though these were never enough to alleviate the hardships and brutality that led to the deaths of many prisoners. On a number of occasions, the Japanese subjected Dunlop to severe beatings and threatened him with execution. His physical control under extreme provocation from his captors earned him respect from his troops and helped to keep the survivors going through the difficult months of increasing pressure to complete their section of the railway. In October he took command of the hospital at Tarsau (Nam Tok) and in January 1944 the hospital at Chungkai (near Kanchanaburi). He spent the last fourteen months of the war at the large Nakom Patom (Nakhon Pathom) hospital camp under (Sir) Albert Coates, who appointed him as the medical economics officer responsible for raising money for the sick. Coates also put him in charge of surgery and physiotherapy.

Repatriated in October 1945, Dunlop transferred to the Reserve of Officers as an honorary colonel on 2 February 1946. He was appointed OBE and mentioned in despatches (both 1947) for his service. On 8 November 1945, at Toorak Presbyterian Church, Victoria, he had married his long-time fiancée, Helen Leigh Raeburn Ferguson, a biochemist.

Resuming civilian life, Dunlop entered private practice and was appointed honorary surgeon to out-patients, later in-patients, at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. Many of his patients were prisoners of war (POWs) or their wives; none were charged for their treatment. Demonstrating his ongoing commitment to their welfare, he served as president (1946–89) of the Victorian branch of the Ex-Prisoners of War Relatives Association for the next twenty-three years. In August 1946 he opened an exhibition of watercolours and pencil sketches by the former POW Ray Parkin, who had created the artworks in captivity; Dunlop had concealed them beneath a table top, and brought them to Australia. He gave evidence that was later used at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East. On behalf of POWs, he sought ‘reparations from the Japanese in compensation for suffering, disability, and loss of life resulting from inhuman treatment’ (Dunlop quoted in Smith’s Weekly 1947, 4).

Elected a fellow of the Royal Australian College of Surgeons in 1948, Dunlop worked as a consultant at the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital and Peter MacCallum Clinic during the 1950s and 1960s. He quickly gained a reputation for taking on difficult surgeries and for performing long, complex procedures. While his status as a surgeon was unquestioned, some of his surgical colleagues chafed at his tendency to run over time in theatre, charging him with being unprofessional. Indeed some considered his surgical practices cavalier, with one colleague, Alf Nathan, describing them as ‘pandoodlectomies.’ Others accused him of ignoring his patients’ quality of life after surgery. However, Dunlop rejected such criticisms; if his otherwise inoperable patients survived the procedure, and many did, they were generally grateful for the extra life his ‘heroic’ (Ebury 2009, 334) efforts had given them.

In the two decades after the war, Dunlop’s attitude towards his former captors shifted from ‘hatred’ (Hetherington 1964, 22) to distrust to forgiveness. Under the Colombo Plan, in 1956 and 1958 he undertook surgical work in Thailand, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and India, and later encouraged the training of Asian medical personnel in Australia. Believing that ‘friendship between Australians and Asians [was] essential to lasting peace’ (Hetherington 1964, 22), he supported efforts to increase understanding, serving as president of the Australian-Asian Association from 1963 to 1993. In 1969 he returned to South-East Asia during the Vietnam War as leader of the Australian surgical team caring for civilians. He had been appointed CMG in 1965 and was knighted in 1969.

Sir Edward maintained a high public profile. Chairman of the Prisoners of War Trust Fund (1968–77), he took an active role in community health, serving as president of the Victorian Foundation on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (1970–82) and chairman of the executive committee of the Anti-Cancer Council of Victoria (1974–80). He was named Australian of the Year for 1976. His The War Diaries of Weary Dunlop, illustrated by prisoners’ artworks, was published to great acclaim in 1986 and he was appointed AC in 1987. That year the Weary Dunlop Boon Pong Exchange Fellowship was established. Initiated by returned POWs in Western Australia, the fellowship brought Thai surgeons to Australia for further training.

Predeceased by Helen (d. 1988) and survived by his two sons, Dunlop died on 2 July 1993 at Prahran, Victoria. He was farewelled with full military honours at a State funeral at St Paul’s Cathedral, at which the former governor-general Sir Ninian Stephen delivered the eulogy. His coffin was carried on a gun carriage to the Shrine of Remembrance and over ten thousand spectators lined the streets. His remains were later cremated and floated down the Kwae Noi. Weary’s heroism and legacy is memorialised by prominent statues at Benalla, Melbourne, and Canberra. The last, a bronze sculpture located in the grounds of the Australian War Memorial, depicts him in later life as a humble, stoop-shouldered, approachable, and smiling man. Dunlop was inducted into the Australian Rugby Union Hall of Fame in 2008, the first Victorian to be given that honour. The Canberra suburb of Dunlop is named for him.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Canberra Times. ‘The Knight Who Forgave His Tormentors.’ 3 July 1993, 16
  • Dunlop, Alan J. Little Sticks: The Story of Two Brothers. Melbourne: Acacia Press, 1985
  • Dunlop, E. E. The War Diaries of Weary Dunlop: Java and the Burma-Thailand Railway, 1942–1945. Melbourne: Nelson, 1986
  • Ebury, Sue. Weary King of the River. Carlton, Vic.: Miegunyah Press, 2009
  • Geddes, Margaret. Remembering Weary. Ringwood, Vic.: Viking, 1996
  • Hetherington, John. ‘Man at His Best Is a Noble Creature.’ Age, 2 May 1964, 22
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, VX259
  • Smith’s Weekly. ‘Wants £1000 for Every POW.’ 4 January 1947, 4

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Citation details

Michele C. Horne and Katie Anne Mills, 'Dunlop, Sir Ernest Edward (Weary) (1907–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dunlop-sir-ernest-edward-weary-27739/text35423, published online 2019, accessed online 23 November 2019.

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