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Blaxland, Peter John (1915–1996)

by Thomas Faunce

This article was published online in 2020

Peter John Blaxland (1915–1996), general surgeon, was born on 5 September 1915 at Aldershot, Hampshire, England, son of Edward Blaxland, lithographic artist, and his wife Emmie, née Kirkland. Peter attended Aldershot High School, played water polo, and won a scholarship to St Mary's Hospital Medical School, London. Taught by the eminent surgeon Arthur Dickson Wright, he was awarded a conjoint diploma (1939). On 2 December 1940 at the Church of St Andrew, Sherborne St John, Hampshire, he married Joan Isabel Chittenden, a nurse. They were to have one son and two daughters.

Commissioned in the Royal Air Force on 2 July 1940 as a medical officer, Blaxland was promoted to flight lieutenant in July 1941, serving in the Middle East and Italy. He was promoted to squadron leader and mentioned in dispatches (1943). Following his demobilisation in 1946, he successfully sat the MBBS examination at the University of London, graduating with honours in 1946, and in 1948 was elected a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of England. He held appointments at the Metropolitan Hospital in London’s East End (1948–50), the Children’s Hospital, Great Ormond Street, London (1950–52), and the Royal Southampton Hospital (1952–53).

Frustrated by a lack of professional opportunities in Britain, Blaxland in 1953 migrated to Australia with his family to take up an appointment as staff surgeon at Darwin Hospital. Three years later, seeking better educational opportunities for his children, he joined the surgical practice of Carter, May, and Roach at Queanbeyan, New South Wales. In 1957 he moved to rooms in Canberra that he shared with Jim McCracken, an obstetrician, and Tony Proust, a general and thoracic physician. The previous year he had been appointed a consultant to the Royal Australian Air Force with the rank of wing commander, a role he filled until 1980.

Blaxland’s arrival in Canberra coincided with the city’s rapid growth resulting in services previously provided by general practitioners being increasingly undertaken by specialists. This led to some tensions and his occasionally being called upon to redeem the surgical efforts of less skilled colleagues, as well as taking on difficult cases that previously would have been sent to Sydney. His growing reputation for judgement and technical ability was further enhanced when he successfully resected half the large bowel of an eighty-four pound (38 kg) patient under difficult conditions at Queanbeyan hospital. Shortly after this he was placed on the emergency roster for the Canberra Community Hospital (CCH, later Royal Canberra Hospital).

In 1957 Blaxland was elected a fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons. His heavy workload encompassed paediatric, urological, plastic, and orthopaedic operations: he estimated that during his long service at CCH he performed about fifteen thousand operations with the anaesthetist, Bruce Morison. About 25 per cent of his patients at the CCH were treated free of charge, ‘all for the love of God’ (Powell 1999, 7) because they, including pensioners, were not well off.

An early president of the Canberra Medical Society, in 1963 Blaxland was elected to the Medical Advisory Committee. In the 1970s during a dispute about salaried medical officers, seven anaesthetists warned him not to refer patients with complications to the salaried gastroenterologist Kerry Goulson, or they would cease providing anaesthesia for his cases. Strong willed and ethical, his reply shocked them: ‘I’ll take the chance. I have the right to refer any medical complication of my patients to any physician that I choose’ (Powell 1999, 205).

In July 1981 Blaxland’s retirement was marked by the unveiling of a plaque naming the surgical suite at the Royal Canberra Hospital in his honour. He was described as ‘a wonderful teacher—always gentle and lovely to deal with’ (Powell 1999, 57), and as having brought to his adopted city ‘the great British tradition of master surgery’ (Canberra Times 1981, 3). As a family man he enjoyed the simple pleasures of life, and in retirement took up Chinese cooking, breadmaking and gardening. He died on 8 January 1996 in Canberra and was cremated. His wife and children survived him.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • ACT Heritage Library. HMSS 0458, Canberra Hospital Specialists Memoirs
  • Canberra Doctor. ‘Obituary: Peter Blaxland.’ March 1996, 7
  • Canberra Times. ‘Farewell to “Well-Loved” Surgeon.’ 21 July 1981, 3
  • Powell, Keith. Canberra’s Health 1950–1994. Gundaroo, NSW: Brolga Press, 1999
  • Proust, Anthony, and S. E. Williams. ‘Peter John Blaxland.’ Medical Journal of Australia 165 (15 July 1996): 111

Additional Resources

Citation details

Thomas Faunce, 'Blaxland, Peter John (1915–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/blaxland-peter-john-28181/text35866, published online 2020, accessed online 20 August 2022.

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