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Furnell, Herbert Giblin (Harry) (1898–1973)

by A. J. Hill

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Herbert Giblin Furnell (1898-1973), by unknown photographer

Herbert Giblin Furnell (1898-1973), by unknown photographer

Australian War Memorial, 020748

Herbert Giblin (Harry) Furnell (1898-1973), gynaecologist and army officer, was born on 24 October 1898 at Maryborough, Victoria, son of George William Furnell, a gaol-governor from England, and his second wife Florence Ellen, née Herbert, who was born in New South Wales. After winning scholarships to Geelong Church of England Grammar School and to Trinity College, University of Melbourne (M.B., B.S., 1921; D.G.O., 1932), 'Harry' played Australian Rules football for the Carlton club. He served his residency at St Vincent's Hospital, then entered private practice at Abbotsford. At St Joseph's Catholic Church, Malvern, on 12 April 1924 he married Marguerite McLean.

In March 1923 he was appointed lieutenant, (Royal) Australian Army Medical Corps, Militia, and came under the influence of Colonel Rupert Downes. By 1932 Furnell was a major, commanding the 10th Field Ambulance; in 1936 he was promoted lieutenant colonel. His civilian career also blossomed. In 1927-29 he had studied surgery in London and Edinburgh, and obstetrics and gynaecology in Dublin and Vienna, before specializing as a gynaecologist. A fellow (1927) of the Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh, he was to be elected to fellowships of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (1958) and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, London (1965).

Furnell was among the first to join the Australian Imperial Force in October 1939. Given command of the 2nd/2nd Field Ambulance, he made it 'a magnificent unit, with a sense of purpose amongst all ranks'. He sailed for the Middle East in April 1940. In the advance through Libya in January 1941 'he was continually forward supervising [the] collection of wounded under enemy fire'. On 27 January, in an air-raid near Derna, he saved the life of a wounded soldier by getting him into a slit trench and maintaining pressure on a severed artery. Furnell was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.

Promoted temporary colonel on 16 February 1941 (substantive in August), he transferred to 9th Division headquarters as assistant-director of medical services. At Tobruk, from April to October 1941, he provided medical support to a garrison, initially over 35,000 strong, and to some 10,000 prisoners. His success in caring for the wounded and in maintaining the health of the force was a remarkable achievement.

Furnell's hard training after Tobruk prepared his medical units for the El Alamein campaign of July-November 1942. In the battle which opened on 23 October he established forward surgical centres for the early treatment of severe injuries and evacuated some casualties by air. His arrangements were 'a triumph of organization and detailed planning, all medical units working as one great team'. For his achievements in the Middle East, he was appointed C.B.E. (1943) and thrice mentioned in dispatches.

Returning to Australia in early 1943, Furnell was promoted temporary brigadier and posted as deputy-director of medical services, I Corps and New Guinea Force. He took up his command on 4 July 1943 in Port Moresby and spent much of the next two years moving between his respective headquarters in a war in which disease and the terrain matched the hostility of the Japanese. Twice mentioned in dispatches, he transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 21 July 1945. While rebuilding his civilian practice, in 1946-51 he performed part-time duty in the Citizen Military Forces as D.D.M.S., Southern Command, Melbourne, and (briefly in 1947-48) acting director-general of medical services at Army Headquarters. In 1962 he was appointed an honorary colonel of the R.A.A.M.C.

Furnell was honorary gynaecologist and consultant gynaecologist (from 1960) to St Vincent's Hospital, and dean (1953-57) of the hospital's clinical school. He was involved in planning the Mercy Maternity Hospital (opened in 1971) and in the establishment of a chair of obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of Melbourne. President (1955) and treasurer (1962-72) of the Victorian branch of the British (Australian) Medical Association, he was largely responsible for financing the building of the Medical Society Hall, Parkville. He was a board-member of the British Medical Insurance Co. and the Australasian Medical Publishing Co. Ltd. In 1956 he chaired the medical committee for the Olympic Games. After visiting Indonesia in 1964, he recommended sending a surgical team to train medical students in that country.

Survived by his wife, son and daughter, Furnell died on 22 November 1973 in East Melbourne and was buried in Springvale cemetery. A wartime comrade W. W. Lempriere remembered his courage, endurance, high principles, sense of humour and egalitarianism. Sir Geoffrey Newman-Morris wrote of his kindness and gentleness, and of the firmness and decisiveness with which he served 'the profession he loved and adorned so well'.

Select Bibliography

  • A. S. Walker, Middle East and Far East (Canb, 1953)
  • A. S. Walker, The Island Campaigns (Canb, 1957)
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 6 Apr 1974, p 546
  • Age (Melbourne), 17 Feb 1965
  • private information.

Citation details

A. J. Hill, 'Furnell, Herbert Giblin (Harry) (1898–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/furnell-herbert-giblin-harry-10262/text18149, published in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 17 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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