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Gunn, Reginald Montagu Cairns (Rex) (1893–1974)

by Robert I. Taylor

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

Reginald Montagu Cairns (Rex) Gunn (1893-1974), professor of veterinary science, was born on 19 October 1893 at Petersham, Sydney, second child of Joseph Robertson Gunn, an accountant from Scotland, and his Victorian-born wife Eva Louisa, née Fosdyke. 'Rex' was educated at Hayfield Preparatory and Sydney Grammar schools, and at the University of Sydney (B.Sc.Agr., 1915; B.V.Sc. ad eund., 1929; D.V.Sc., 1935) where he graduated with first-class honours. He enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 8 September 1915 and sailed for England in 1916 as farrier sergeant, Army Service Corps. In November he was sent to the Western Front. Granted leave in February 1919, he was admitted to the Royal (Dick) Veterinary College, University of Edinburgh (B.Sc., 1921). Gunn also gained the diploma and membership of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (honorary fellow 1954), and was awarded a silver medal by the (Royal) Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland. On 23 November 1921 he married Georgina Ethel Willis (d.1960) at Hillsborough, County Down, Ireland.

After postgraduate courses in Copenhagen and Stockholm, Gunn returned to Sydney late in 1921 to take up an appointment as lecturer in veterinary anatomy and surgery at the university. He managed to combine active teaching with a considerable volume and a wide field of research, including skin, horn and organ grafting, and fertility studies in sheep, particularly the ram. His meticulous studies on artificial seminal ejaculation, artificial insemination of ewes and the characters of spermatogenesis led to practical developments in sheep husbandry. He wrote his doctoral thesis on fertility in sheep. Encouraged and assisted in his work by J. A. Gilruth, he made many contacts throughout Australia with leading sheep studs and studmasters, and published mainly in the Australian Veterinary Journal (of which he was business manager).

Gunn's scrupulous scientific approach and his manual skills (which made him an outstanding surgeon) profoundly affected his students; they found him dour and unapproachable, but respected his great ability and, in later life, acclaimed his teaching. Practical surgery classes were known as 'Black Wednesday' when all present 'felt the lash of his acid tongue'. He demanded strict discipline in academic and professional work. Appointed reader in 1945, he succeeded (Sir) Ian Clunies Ross as professor of veterinary science in 1948. He ruled his department autocratically and his altercations with his professional colleagues were legendary. In 1939 and 1954-58 he was dean of the faculty.

As captain (1922) and major (1931), Australian Army Veterinary Corps, Militia, Gunn had commanded the 2nd Cavalry Mobile Veterinary Section at the university from 1923. In 1933 he became deputy assistant director, veterinary services, 1st Division, and in 1943 was transferred to the Reserve of Officers. He was president of the Veterinary Association of New South Wales in 1926, the Medical Science Club in 1938-39 and 1957-58, the Australian Veterinary Association in 1941-44 and the Veterinary Surgeons Board in 1942-50. As a consultant, he was closely associated with the Royal Agricultural Society of New South Wales and the Australian Jockey Club. In 1955 Gunn reported to the New Zealand government on the need to establish a veterinary school. That year he was also a member of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization's mission to India and Pakistan on veterinary education; in 1961-62 he served on an F.A.O. panel of experts.

Having retired in 1958 to his four-acre (1.6 ha) property, Crathes, on the Nepean River near Penrith, Gunn married 31-year-old Dorothy Ada Milne, a secretary, on 11 January 1965 at St Oswald's Anglican Church, Haberfield. He was a man of slight build, with a serious, but bright expression, and a well-clipped moustache. Students who came in close contact with him after graduating could not believe that he was their stern and demanding teacher. Survived by his wife and their son and daughter, and by one of the two sons of his first marriage, he died on 1 July 1974 at Crathes and was buried in South Head cemetery, Sydney. The university named a building after Gunn and holds a pen-drawing of him by Norman Carter.

Select Bibliography

  • G. E. Hall and A. Cousins (eds), Book of Remembrance of the University of Sydney in the Great War 1914-1918 (Syd, 1939)
  • Centaur, 1939, p 7, 1947, p 11, 1958, p 18, 1974, p 19
  • Australian Veterinary Journal, 35, Aug 1959, p 381, 50, Sept 1974, p 415
  • University of Sydney, Gazette, Feb 1975
  • Gunn papers (University of Sydney Archives).

Citation details

Robert I. Taylor, 'Gunn, Reginald Montagu Cairns (Rex) (1893–1974)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gunn-reginald-montagu-cairns-rex-10379/text18387, published in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 17 April 2014.

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

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