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Stening, Sir George Grafton (1904–1996)

by Ian Howie-Willis

This article was published online in 2020

George Grafton Lees Stening (1904–1996), charity leader, gynaecological surgeon, and army medical officer, was born on 16 February 1904 at Grafton, New South Wales, eldest of six children of George Smith Stening, district manager of the Fresh Food and Ice Co. Ltd, and his wife Muriel Grafton, née Lees, both Sydney born. After the family moved to Sydney, George junior was educated at Bondi Superior Public and Sydney Boys’ High schools. He was a capable scholar and excelled at sports. At Sydney Boys’ High he won colours for baseball, cricket, and swimming; was a prefect; and won (1921) the John Waterhouse prize for character. He represented the school in the combined high schools and the great public schools swimming championships, played cricket for the GPS team, and earned the surf lifesaving bronze medallion at a Bondi surf club.

Stening entered the University of Sydney (MB BS, 1927) to study medicine in 1922. Because his father was often absent from home, he took responsibility for mentoring his siblings and assisting them through school and university. His three brothers followed him into medicine. At university he won a half-Blue in baseball. After achieving honours at graduation, he became a junior resident medical officer at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital (RPAH) in October 1927. The following year he was a senior resident. In October 1929 he moved to the Royal Hospital for Women, Paddington, where he spent eighteen months as a resident medical officer.

In April 1931 Stening travelled to Britain for postgraduate studies. Because of the Depression, he had meagre financial support. He worked his passage out, then supported himself by taking part-time jobs, including as a night-time doctor at the General Post Office in London. After initially training at the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh, he moved to London, where he studied and worked at the Chelsea Women’s Hospital, Middlesex Hospital, and St Peter’s Hospital for Stone. He then spent four months at Dudley Road Hospital, Birmingham. Successfully completing his training, he was elected a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh in October 1931. He began attending classes in gynaecology and obstetrics in London but did not complete the course, returning to Australia when his father became ill.

Arriving in Sydney in March 1932, Stening opened a private practice at Bondi. The next year he relocated to Macquarie Street in the city, where he practised as a gynaecologist. He was appointed honorary assistant in gynaecology at RPAH (1933) and then honorary assistant surgeon at the Royal Hospital for Women (1934). In 1934 he also began assisting his former teacher (Sir) Hugh Poate in his surgical practice. Poate became his mentor. Stening was an excellent surgeon and an outstanding obstetrician. In 1935 he was admitted as a fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons. He subsequently became a fellow of both the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of England, and of the (Royal) Australian College of (Obstetricians and) Gynaecologists. At the All Saints Anglican Church, Woollahra, on 12 November 1935 he married Kathleen Mary Packer, only daughter of the newspaper proprietor Robert Clyde Packer. To accommodate their small but growing family, the couple moved from their Edgecliff flat to a house at Bellevue Hill in 1938.

From 1929 Stening had served part time in the Australian Army Medical Corps, Citizen Military Forces. By 1936 he was a major and deputy assistant director of medical services, 1st Cavalry Division. Following the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, he was promoted to temporary lieutenant colonel in February 1940 and placed in command of the 2nd Casualty Clearing Station. In May he reverted to major on transferring to the Australian Imperial Force. He was posted to the 2/5th Australian General Hospital (AGH), which arrived in the Middle East in November. Between January and March 1941 he was detached to lead a surgical team in the Libyan campaign. As a substantive lieutenant colonel, he commanded the 2/11th AGH at Alexandria, Egypt, from May. The hospital returned to Australia in March 1942 and deployed to northern Papua in July 1943. He had been promoted to temporary colonel in August 1942. Back in Australia in February 1944, he assumed command of 113th (Concord) Military Hospital, Sydney. When he transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 28 November 1945, he was among the army’s most experienced hospital commanders.

Resuming at his Macquarie Street practice, Stening also served as specialist gynaecologist (1946–63) to the retitled Repatriation General Hospital, Concord. In 1948 he was awarded a Carnegie travelling fellowship. He lectured in gynaecology at the University of Sydney from 1948 until 1964, and co-authored a textbook, Gynaecology (1955), with three colleagues from RPAH. Students praised his ‘inimitable calm and proficient manner’ and his ‘rare operative skill’ (Sydney University Medical Society 1950, 1954, 1964). In 1964 he was appointed as an honorary consulting gynaecological surgeon at RPAH, a position he retained into his late eighties. He served on both the State and national councils of the Royal Australian College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and was knighted in 1968.

Sir George stood 178 centimetres tall, with fair hair and blue eyes. Until middle age he retained the slim, athletic build of his youth. After joining the army he wore a short, well-trimmed moustache. Of distinguished appearance and military bearing, and with a natural air of authority, he inspired confidence as a leader. He was universally respected for his integrity; that and his genial nature made him popular among peers, colleagues, and subordinates alike.

In 1927 Stening had been encouraged by Poate to become involved with the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem. He lectured in public first aid classes offered by the St John Ambulance and then took on the positions of district surgeon (1939) and commissioner (1945) of the St John Ambulance Brigade in New South Wales. In 1951 Poate, then chancellor (administrative head) of the Australian priory of the order, appointed him to the national body as its director of ceremonies. Six years later Stening was the director of ambulance, responsible for the St John Ambulance first aid training program. In March 1961 he became chancellor, succeeding Poate, who had died in office in January that year.

Immediately Stening was called on to deal with the damage wrought in Queensland by a volatile and long-standing dispute between the St John Ambulance Association (training branch) and the Queensland Ambulance Transport Brigade (later the Queensland Ambulance Service). In Victoria in 1977 he had to intervene to withdraw the St John Ambulance branch from a $14 million tax avoidance scheme and salvage the order’s reputation for probity. Through his wise, effective management of such crises, the priory grew in authority as the national organisation responsible for St John Ambulance in Australia.

As chancellor, Stening also oversaw the rise of St John Ambulance from a relatively minor charity to a respected national community sector organisation specialising in the delivery of first aid services and (depending on the jurisdiction) ambulance transport. His achievements included the construction in Canberra of a permanent national headquarters and the relocation there of the priory’s administration (1967), which for the previous twenty years had been based in Sydney. He also oversaw the standardisation of first aid training in Australia, an attainment made possible by the production of an authoritative, readable manual, First Aid. Published by the priory from 1969, it quickly became the standard first aid textbook in Australia.

In March 1982 Stening retired after a twenty-one-year term of office. His progress through the grades of membership in the order (a royal order of chivalry with the British monarch as its sovereign head) reflected his sustained achievement. Admitted as an officer in 1946, he was promoted to commander in 1952, knight in 1956, and bailiff grand cross (the highest grade) in 1971. Only one Australian, Poate, had previously reached that level. Kathleen also worked for the order for over thirty years. She was admitted as a serving sister in 1966, then promoted through the grades to dame in 1989.

By 1991 the couple had moved to the suburb of Point Piper. Having taken up golf after university, Stening continued playing until he was in his late eighties; he had been president of the State (1970-74) and national (1974) branches of the Senior Golfers’ Society. He died on 17 July 1996 at Elizabeth Bay. Survived by Kathleen and their son and daughter, he was cremated after a funeral service at All Saints, Woollahra. A memorial service was subsequently conducted for him in the Sydney Town Hall. John Lee’s photographic portrait (1944) of him as the commandant of the 113th AGH is part of the collection of the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, and his portrait in oils by Graeme Inson (1982) is held in the national office of St John Ambulance Australia.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Dawson, Christopher. ‘Eminent Surgeon Also Served St John.’ Australian, 29 July 1996, 16
  • Glozier, Matthew. The Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem in Australia: New South Wales Members, 18952017 — An Official, Complete, Annotated Listing. [Burwood, NSW]: M. R. Glozier for St John Ambulance Australia (NSW), 2018
  • Howie-Willis, Ian. A Century for Australia: St John Ambulance in Australia, 18831983. Canberra: Priory of the Order of St John in Australia, 1983
  • National Archives of Australia. A14162, NMX079277–01
  • National Archives of Australia. NX487, B883
  • Priory in Australia, The Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem. Annual Report. [Sydney]: The Priory, 1946–2000
  • Stening, G. Frank H. Interview by the author, Bowral, New South Wales, 28 February 2019
  • Sydney University Medical Society. Senior Year Book, Faculty of Medicine, University of Sydney. Sydney: The Society, 1948–64
  • Young, Gordon N. ‘Sir George Grafton Lees Stening.’ Medical Journal of Australia 166 (3 March 1997): 273

Additional Resources

Citation details

Ian Howie-Willis, 'Stening, Sir George Grafton (1904–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/stening-sir-george-grafton-29616/text36510, published online 2020, accessed online 19 October 2021.

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