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George Garrett Burniston (1914–1992)

by John Carmody and Chris Cunneen

This article was published:

George Garrett Burniston (1914–1992), medical practitioner, was born on 23 November 1914 at Campsie, Sydney, third of four children of Victorian-born George Benjamin Burniston, butcher, and his New South Wales-born wife Daisy Belle, née Boxwell. George attended Summer Hill Intermediate High and Sydney Boys’ High schools, and from 1933 the University of Sydney (MB, BS, 1939). After working as a resident medical officer at Hornsby District Hospital he was commissioned as a flight lieutenant in the Medical Branch of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) on 17 June 1940.

Embarking for England in November, Burniston was seconded to the Royal Air Force orthopaedic service, where he worked under Sir Reginald Watson-Jones and Air Commodore H. Osmond-Clarke on the rehabilitation of traumatic disabilities. Promoted to squadron leader in October 1942, he returned to Australia in July 1943 and continued rehabilitation work in the RAAF. From 23 February 1944 he commanded No. 2 Convalescent Depot (Medical Rehabilitation Unit) at Jervis Bay, on the south coast of New South Wales, as an acting wing commander from 1 August. Between 1946 and 1948, in Sydney, he was deputy coordinator, New South Wales, of rehabilitation for disabled ex-service personnel in the Commonwealth Department of Post-War Reconstruction (acting coordinator, 1948-50); he ceased full-time duty with the air force in September 1946 and transferred to the RAAF Reserve in May 1947. He became senior medical officer in the State for the Commonwealth Department of Social Services in 1950, and would also act as principal medical officer in the department’s head office, in Melbourne.

In 1953 Burniston spent six months in the United States of America as a Fulbright fellow at New York University and a further six months in Britain and Europe, principally attached to the department of physical medicine, King’s College, London. The following year he became principal medical officer in the Commonwealth Department of Social Services and chief medical authority for the Commonwealth Rehabilitation Service. Back in Melbourne, he moved into the South Yarra flat of his life-partner, Glasgow-born James Donald Mathieson (Don) Dobie (19271996), who worked for the Bank of New South Wales (later Westpac).

Demand for rehabilitation services was increasing in postwar Australia, driven by factors such as the needs of injured ex-servicemen, a growing number of road accidents, and the aftermath of the polio epidemics. In 1960 Burniston prepared a report for the New South Wales minister of health recommending introduction of a rehabilitation program at Lidcombe State Hospital and Home. Next year his report for the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Authority resulted in its establishing an industrial rehabilitation centre at Cooma. He returned to Sydney in January 1963 upon appointment as director of rehabilitation medicine at Prince Henry and Prince of Wales hospitals and conjoint senior lecturer in rehabilitation medicine (conjoint associate professor from 1978) at the University of New South Wales, Kensington. Dobie also moved to Sydney and the couple lived in a seaside apartment at Cronulla. Elected Liberal member for Hughes in the House of Representatives in 1966, Dobie held the seat and later that of Cook—except from 1972 to 1975—until 1996.

Burniston’s primary responsibility was in patient care at the Prince Henry Hospital, Little Bay; his focus was on helping people ‘toward the fullest life they can live’ (Keavney 1968, 13). Research was not his forte and he published little, but he was keen to train rehabilitation specialists. In the absence of any Australian postgraduate courses, he persuaded the Royal College of Physicians, London, to accredit his registrar training for its diploma of physical medicine examinations. Subsequently, he was important in the establishment of the local diploma of physical and rehabilitation medicine (he was elected the foundation diplomate in 1970). In 1959 he was elected president of the Australian Association of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. From 1963 to 1969 he was president of the New South Wales branch of the Australian Association of Occupational Therapists and between 1980 and 1982 foundation president of the Australian College of Rehabilitation Medicine, which later became the Australasian Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine (AFRM) of the Royal Australian College of Physicians. He was elected a fellow of the (Royal) Australian College of Medical Administrators (1968), the Royal Society of Health (1973), the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (1978), and the Royal Australian College of Rehabilitative Medicine (1980). For more than twenty years he was a member of the expert panel on medical rehabilitation of the World Health Organization.

For his work on rehabilitation, Burniston was appointed OBE in 1968 and CMG in 1972. He retired as director of rehabilitation medicine on 22 November 1979, continuing to work in an honorary capacity until 1985, and practised privately in Macquarie Street, Sydney. Very professional with patients, keen to see improvements in long-term rehabilitation, and highly skilled in planning and organisation, he had good relationships with allied health professionals. He was well built, of medium height with brown hair, and an avid swimmer—doing a mile (1.6 km) a day most mornings. A good amateur artist and collector of paintings, he appreciated literature, attended the theatre, and loved music of all kinds, but could not sing a note. Survived by his partner and by his sister, brother, and brother’s family, he died on 27 June 1992 at Bangkok en route to London. His body was returned to Australia and cremated after a service at St Andrew’s Anglican Church, Cronulla. The AFRM holds an annual oration in his honour.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Baggott, John. Personal communication
  • Gaden, Marcia. Personal communication
  • Jones, R. F. ‘George Garrett Burniston,’ Royal Australasian College of Physicians Roll. Accessed 28 August 2014. Copy held on ADB file
  • Jones, Richard F. ‘George Garrett Burniston: The Man, the Mission and the Memory.’ The George Burniston Oration, 23 March 2010. Accessed 28 August 2014. Copy held on ADB file
  • Keavney, Kay. ‘Their Work is to Help Handicapped.’ Australian Women’s Weekly, 12 June 1968, 12-13
  • Medical Journal of Australia. ‘George Garrett Burniston CMG, OBE, MB BS, DPRM, FRACP, FRACMA, FRSH, FACRM.’ 157, no. 7 (5 October 1992): 495-96
  • National Archives of Australia. A9300, Burniston G G
  • University of New South Wales Archives. G. G. Burniston file

Additional Resources

Citation details

John Carmody and Chris Cunneen, 'Burniston, George Garrett (1914–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2016, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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