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Phillips, Gilbert Edward (1904–1952)

by Max Lake

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Gilbert Edward Phillips (1904-1952), neurosurgeon and wine connoisseur, was born on 23 September 1904 in North Sydney, son of Thomas Buckland Phillips, a Sydney-born estate agent, and his wife Edith Katherine, née King, who came from New Zealand. Gilbert was educated at Chatswood Preparatory School, the Blue Mountains Grammar School, North Sydney Boys' High School and the University of Sydney (B.Sc., 1927; M.Sc., 1928; M.B., B.S., 1929; M.S., 1936). He gained first-class honours in science, university medals in physiology, and Blues in rowing and swimming. A champion heavyweight, he boxed under an adopted name, using his purses, and his earnings as a sports journalist, to pay his fees. He served as a board-member (1934-37) and vice-president (1935-36) of the Sydney University Union, and as president of the boxing club (1934-35) and sports union (1951-52).

While holding a Liston Wilson research fellowship (1930-34), Phillips joined the university's department of anatomy, won a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship and sailed for England. In 1931-33 he worked in turn as a research-assistant to Sir Charles Sherrington at Oxford and Professor (Lord) Adrian at Cambridge, as clinical clerk at the National Hospital for Diseases of the Nervous System, London, and as surgical-assistant to (Sir) Hugh Cairns. At the parish church of St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, on 22 June 1932 he married Coralie Ngareta Bloomfield.

Returning to the University of Sydney in 1934, Phillips was appointed assistant-lecturer in surgery (lecturer 1935-37); he also lectured in the anatomy department on neurology and applied neurophysiology. After a period as consulting neurosurgeon at Lewisham Hospital in 1934-36, he resumed his connection with Royal Prince Alfred Hospital where he had been a resident medical officer (1929-31). Regarded as the brilliant protégé of (Sir) Harold Dew, he served (1937-44) as honorary assistant neurosurgeon at R.P.A.H. In 1937 he travelled to England and the United States of America to visit major neurological centres. Next year he became a fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons.

In 1937-45 Phillips was a part-time consultant with the Royal Australian Air Force, holding the rank of squadron leader (1940). At Cairns's request, he went to England in February 1945 and accepted an emergency commission in the Royal Army Medical Corps. He served in a mobile neurosurgical unit before being made temporary lieutenant colonel and officer-in-charge of the surgical division of the hospital for head injuries, St Hugh's College, Oxford. When World War II ended, Phillips returned to R.P.A.H. as honorary neurosurgeon. From 1947 he endeavoured to have a centre founded in Sydney for the diagnosis of nervous diseases in returned servicemen: the Northcott Neurological Centre was opened in November 1951. During his career Phillips published forty-five articles, many in the Medical Journal of Australia.

A founder (1939) and president of the Wine and Food Society of New South Wales, Phillips had been impressed by the activities of a co-operative wine-buying society which he had seen in London. On his return to Sydney, he established (1946) the Australian Wine Consumers' Co-operative Society Ltd. He frequently visited Maurice O'Shea at Mount Pleasant, Pokolbin; with a group of up to a dozen friends, they devoted weekends to discussion and tasting. Phillips's J. K. Walker lecture was published by the Wine and Food Society as The Appreciation of Wine (1950). A splendid cook, he created original dishes from ducks reared on his farm at Bilpin.

Phillips had a zest for life. He read widely, enjoyed sailing, played the piano competently and sang well; his erudition was legendary, his often Rabelaisian wit a delight. Well over six feet (183 cm) tall, with brushed-down wavy hair and eyes that saw all, he was described as 'a man's man'. He exercised a profound influence on his peers and inspired his students.

In June 1951, following long-term treatment for skin cancer, Phillips's right leg was amputated below the knee. Within six weeks he was performing operations again, with an artificial leg, and, later, aided by a special chair. He revisited England in January 1952 to continue his work on head injuries, but came back to Sydney in April. Suffering from a secondary melanoma, he died of a pulmonary embolism on 12 September 1952 at his Darling Point home and was cremated with Anglican rites; his wife and four daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • G. J. Fraenkel, Hugh Cairns (Oxford, 1991)
  • Royal Prince Alfred Hospital (Sydney), Annual Report, 1936-37, 1942-44, 1952-53
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 29 Nov 1952
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 7 July 1933, 8 Jan 1937, 14, 20, 21 Sept 1952
  • Sunday Telegraph (Sydney), 14 Sept 1952
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Max Lake, 'Phillips, Gilbert Edward (1904–1952)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/phillips-gilbert-edward-11385/text20341, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 15 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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