Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Windsor, Henry Matthew John (Harry) (1914–1987)

by John Carmody

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Harry Windsor, by Greg Lee, 1968

Harry Windsor, by Greg Lee, 1968

State Library of New South Wales, 120116

Henry Matthew John (Harry) Windsor (1914-1987), cardiac surgeon, was born on 27 October 1914 at Cork, Ireland, eldest of five children of Irish parents Henry Joseph Windsor, physician and surgeon, and his wife Norah Agnes Matthew, née Carroll, a nurse.  Harry came to Australia with his mother in 1916, joining his father (who had arrived eighteen months earlier) first at Toowoomba, then in Brisbane.  Educated from 1923 by the Christian Brothers at Gregory Terrace and Nudgee colleges, he was admitted for the pre-medicine year at the University of Queensland in 1933, and the next year necessarily moved to the University of Sydney, where he gained second-class honours in medicine.  A resident of St John’s College, he was active in sports, notably rugby union (winning four Blues), athletics and rowing.

Influenced by Victor Kinsella and (Sir Ian) Douglas Miller (perhaps, too, by his abiding Catholic faith), Windsor chose St Vincent’s Hospital, Darlinghurst, for his postgraduate experience as a resident medical officer, remaining three years (clinical superintendent in 1941).  Following the outbreak of World War II, on 8 May 1942 he began full-time service as a captain in the Australian Army Medical Corps, Citizen Military Forces, and was posted to the 11th Casualty Clearing Station at Camden.  Having volunteered for and, on 11 July, transferred to the Australian Imperial Force, he was reassigned to the 111th CCS.  On 29 August 1942 at St John’s College, Camperdown, he married with Catholic rites Imelda Mary Burfitt, a secretary whom he had met when she was a student at Sancta Sophia College.

Windsor served in New Guinea in July 1943-March 1944 and April-September 1944.  In late 1942 he had completed a three-week course at the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, University of Sydney, which proved very useful in his work supporting the 7th Division at Nadzab, during the Ramu Valley campaign.  Most of the two hundred men received each day by the 111th CCS were ill with malaria or scrub typhus; he and his colleagues undertook both the laboratory diagnosis and the clinical management of 'men [who] were more afraid of scrub typhus than a Japanese bullet'.  In 1944 he passed both the pre-clinical and clinical examinations for the master of surgery degree, specially flying from New Guinea to the University of Sydney (MS, 1945).  He transferred to the 2/15th Field Ambulance in July 1944.  Late that year he became ill himself, with an enlarged liver (probably malaria).

After a series of short postings to medical units in Australia, on 18 August 1945 Windsor was promoted to temporary major and on the 27th embarked for Singapore with the 2/14th Australian General Hospital.  In September he was sent to Sumatra with a small team to search for a group of Australian prisoner-of-war nurses, who were located near Loebock Linggau (Lubuklinggau).  In his account the deep feelings of this normally intensely controlled man occasionally burst through.  'Camp conditions were everywhere shocking . . . All POWs state that the majority of the guards were cruel in the extreme. Collective punishment was universally adopted and usually consisted of flogging, kickings and beatings . . . I recommend that all Kempi' [the Kempei Tai, the military police arm of the Imperial Army, or 'Japanese Gestapo' as Windsor termed them] 'be forthwith slowly and painfully butchered'.  Returning to Australia in November, he transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 12 March 1946 with the rank of honorary major.

Windsor, with Justin Fleming, took up a new post of 'surgical associate' at St Vincent’s Hospital (an attempt by the hospital to make up for the young soldier surgeons’ lost training time, a matter on which Windsor had strong views, contrary to the conventional praise of the value of the diversity of wartime clinical experience); the pair held Gordon Craig fellowships of the University of Sydney and Windsor also tutored part time in anatomy at the university.  His wartime work and the influence of Major John Hayward, a surgeon with the Australian army in New Guinea, pushed Windsor towards the nascent specialty of thoracic surgery.  In mid-1947, having obtained the fellowship of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons in June, he left for England to gain more expertise in that field.  He quickly acquired the fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons and worked principally with Vernon Thompson at the Middlesex Thoracic Unit, Harefield, London, and with George Mason at the North East Regional Thoracic Unit, Newcastle upon Tyne.  Reflecting later on his background, he wrote, 'With influence there is life; without it there is none'.

Travelling, as he had previously done, as a ship’s doctor, Windsor returned in August 1949 to be an assistant staff surgeon at St Vincent’s (inaugural honorary thoracic surgeon, 1950), consultant surgeon to the Anti-Tuberculosis Association of New South Wales, a member of the visiting medical staff of the Repatriation General Hospital, Concord, and chief consultant (1951-84) to the Commonwealth Repatriation Department.

By 1950 Windsor had established a specialist department of thoracic surgery at St Vincent’s that, after much detailed planning, led in 1960 to the opening of the 100-bed Cameron Wing—commonly referred to as 'Windsor Castle' within the hospital.  There, given a great fillip in 1957 by the visit of the British surgeon Sir Russell (Baron) Brock, and aided by his two extraordinary protégés, Mark Shanahan and Victor Chang, Windsor was the Australian pioneer of cardiac valvular surgery (1951); surgery employing hypothermia (1954); cardiac valve replacement (1963); coronary artery grafting (1969), which 'gave Australians a flying start in this procedure'; and, most famously, heart transplantation (1968)—all facilitated by his respect for physicians and other scientific experts and by his willingness to collaborate.  He was elected a fellow of the American College of Surgeons in 1963.  Not only was he an expert surgeon, his dedication strongly endeared him to his patients.  A former colleague noted that 'When he first started cardiac surgery he used to sleep next to the patient’s bed and he did this for years'.

The first Australian cardiac transplant, on 23 October 1968, followed Christiaan Barnard’s epoch-making surgery (December 1967) in South Africa, and was, significantly, five months after Windsor’s ethically reflective letter on the procedure in the Medical Journal of Australia (18 May 1968, pp 869-70).  The recipient, Richard Pye, survived only six weeks but the problem was not the surgery, rather the inadequacy of contemporary immunosuppression.  The next transplant at St Vincent’s did not occur until 1974, when the counter-pharmacology of tissue rejection had materially improved; by the time of Windsor’s death, the procedure had become a standard one.

Windsor was well read in non-medical as well as medical literature and published more than sixty professional papers himself.  As perhaps befitted a member of an immigrant family, he was an internationalist—first focused on Britain and the United States of America and, later, powerfully interested in China:  helping its medicine, by both visiting the country himself and arranging training in Australia for surgeons and nurses, as well as absorbing its culture and language.  Aged about 60, he took up the Chinese language and could write a thousand characters.  His interest in sport continued throughout his life; in the 1950s he successfully coached recalcitrant teams of St Vincent’s doctors, but medicine always had the highest priority.

Like many an eminent surgeon Windsor was dogmatic and autocratic.  As with so many men of his era, he was austere in personality; his education by the Christian Brothers with their Irish Jansenist philosophy reinforced this.  In his memoir, The Heart of a Surgeon (1988), he reflected on this professional proclivity and on the cost of his medical success to his family life.  'Somewhere between duty to the two hard masters, family and medicine, lies the path to be trodden.'  Two of his children have dealt with his lack of success in resolving that dilemma:  the tone of Tiger Country (1980), a novel by his daughter, Penelope Rowe, is particularly bitter while his son Gerard showed a more tempered disenchantment in his short story, 'My Father’s Version of the Nurses’ Story': 'He went to the war, he went to the Royal College of Surgeons. I stayed behind. He had chosen his ground, and I wasn’t on it, then or ever'.  Perhaps Harry Windsor had forgotten what he wrote in 1934: 'The sensible and happy person is he who steers the “Via Media”'.

Nonetheless, to most of his colleagues Windsor was, in the words of Shanahan, 'a great man and a great surgeon . . . he has influenced many lives in many ways and will never be forgotten'.  That was the reason, together with his firm support for the successful transfer of the St Vincent’s Clinical School from the University of Sydney to the University of New South Wales in 1967-68, for his award of an honorary doctorate of medicine by the latter in 1985.  Mr Windsor, as he was always known, retired from St Vincent’s Public Hospital and from operative surgery in October 1979.  Survived by his wife and their daughter and five sons, he died on 20 March 1987 at Darlinghurst and was buried in the Catholic section of Botany cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Miller (ed), The Development of Surgery in an Australian Hospital, 1857-1975: St. Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney (1977)
  • G. Windsor, Memories of the Assassination Attempt and Other Stories (1985)
  • J. B. Hickie, The Thinkers: A History of the Physicians and the Development of Scientific Medicine at St. Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney, 1857-1997 (2000)
  • John’s: The Magazine of the Students of St John’s College within the University of Sydney, 1934
  • Faculty of Medicine, University of Sydney, Senior Year Book, 1938, p 118
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 15 June 1987, p 648
  • B883, item NX77289 (National Archives of Australia)
  • B883, item NX102542 (National Archives of Australia)
  • MP742/1, item 336/1/1289 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Archives of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons
  • Archives of St Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Carmody, 'Windsor, Henry Matthew John (Harry) (1914–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/windsor-henry-matthew-john-harry-15874/text27075, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 19 March 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2019