Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Robert Sands (1919–1980)

by Graham Macdonald

This article was published:

John Robert Sands (1919-1980), physician, printer and businessman, was born on 22 September 1919 at Manly, Sydney, son of Australian-born parents Grahame Sands, merchant, and his wife Gladys Beatrice, née Carter. Educated at Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore) and the University of Sydney (M.B., B.S., 1941), John became a resident medical officer at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. On 12 November 1941 he was commissioned provisional captain in the Australian Army Medical Corps (Militia); on 13 August 1942 he was seconded to the Australian Imperial Force. He served with the 10th Field Ambulance in New Guinea and on Morotai Island. While on leave, he married Margaret Lesley Brand on 4 December 1944 at St Andrew's Church of England, Lismore, New South Wales.

Transferring to the Reserve of Officers on 29 June 1946, Sands undertook the twelve-month course offered to returning medical officers at R.P.A.H. He worked briefly at the Brisbane Clinic, Wickham Terrace, from July 1947. Back in Sydney in the following year, he was in private practice at Kensington before moving (1956) to Macquarie Street. In 1955 he was appointed honorary assistant physician at R.P.A.H. and began to specialize in nephrology. As a senior physician in charge of a general medical unit from 1963, he oversaw rapid changes in renal medicine with the development of dialysis treatment and organ transplants. Nephrology was transformed from a minor specialty into a major branch of medicine.

A parallel and fundamental shift occurred from honorary consultants to full-time, salaried staff specialists. An honorary of the old school himself, Sands trained as registrars many young physicians who became prominent in academic medicine and led (often against vociferous resistance) the changes in hospital ethos which made these developments possible.

Possessing a restless intellect, a gentle nature and a sharp wit without malice, Sands came from a family of printers and businessmen. He was thin, with dark hair brushed back from his forehead. His voice was soft but had timbre. He behaved to all with kindness and courtesy bordering on courtliness. Having joined the board of John Sands Pty Ltd, printers, in 1944, he became executive-chairman in 1965. John Sands Holdings Ltd was registered as a public company in 1950. Sands often left his home after a late dinner to spend further hours at the factory. Under his leadership the firm expanded. His business skills led to his appointments as a councillor of the Medical Benefits Fund of Australia in 1955 and as a director of the Bank of New South Wales in 1974.

Sands was prominent in the affairs of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, of which he was a councillor (1958-78), fellow (1960), treasurer (1960-68) and vice-president (1974-76). In 1978, aware that he was gravely ill, he declined nomination for the presidency. He wrote numerous medical and scientific papers, including reflections on death and grief. His detailed planning ensured that his patients did not lose continuity of care. Suffering from emphysema and cancer, he died of a cerebral haemorrhage on 21 January 1980 at R.P.A.H., Camperdown, and was cremated. His wife, and their daughter and son survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • J. C. Wiseman and R. J. Mulhearn (eds), Roll of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, vol 2, 1976-90 (Syd, 1994)
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 2, 1980, p 524
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 23 Jan 1980
  • Dr Geoffrey McDonald, funeral oration, St Stephen's Uniting Church, Sydney, Feb 1980 (privately held)
  • private information.

Citation details

Graham Macdonald, 'Sands, John Robert (1919–1980)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 24 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


22 September, 1919
Manly, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


21 January, 1980 (aged 60)
Camperdown, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Religious Influence

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