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Sir Sydney (Syd) Sunderland (1910–1993)

by Ross L. Jones

This article was published:

Sir Sydney Sunderland, University Of Melbourne. Protocol and Functions Office, 1975

Sir Sydney Sunderland, University Of Melbourne. Protocol and Functions Office, 1975

University of Melbourne Archives, 11343/​75918

Sir Sydney Sunderland (1910–1993), professor of experimental neurology, was born on 31 December 1910 in Brisbane, only surviving child of Harry Sunderland, journalist, and his wife Annie, née Smith, both Queensland-born. Syd was educated at Kelvin Grove Boys’ State School and briefly at Scotch College, Melbourne, while his father worked for the Sun-News Pictorial. After the family’s return to Queensland, he attended Brisbane State High School. A talented student and athlete, he was awarded an open scholarship (1929) to study science at the University of Queensland. He was dux of first year, won the Alexander and Elizabeth Raff memorial scholarship, and proceeded to medicine at the University of Melbourne (MB, BS, 1935; DSc, 1945; MD, 1946). Having already passed the primary fellowship examination of the Royal College of Surgeons, England, he won the Jamieson prize in clinical medicine as well as the Keith Levi memorial and Fulton scholarships in his final year.

After graduation Sunderland accepted a senior lectureship in anatomy at the university. He also worked at the Alfred Hospital as an assistant neurologist in Leonard Cox’s clinic and as an assistant to the surgeon Hugh Trumble. When the professor of anatomy Frederic Wood Jones returned to Manchester in 1937, he arranged a position for Sunderland as a demonstrator in (Sir) Wilfrid Le Gros Clark’s department of human anatomy, Oxford. The two had an unsatisfactory relationship; some colleagues surmise that Sunderland was distracted by Nina Gwendoline Johnston, a law student he had met in Melbourne. The couple would marry at St Philip and St James Church, Oxford, on 1 February 1939.

While overseas Sunderland developed new skills and connections including with (Sir) Hugh Cairns, a fellow Australian and leading neurosurgeon, and Pío del Río Hortega, a Spanish histologist who had helped to revolutionise techniques for staining cells. In July 1938 Sunderland was offered the chair of anatomy at the University of Melbourne. After protracted negotiations the university agreed that he could take up his position early in 1940. During the interim he toured Europe and North America, meeting prominent figures in his discipline and acquainting himself with the latest experimental techniques. In mid-1939 he spent three months at Wilder Penfield’s Montreal neurological institute, before visiting neuroanatomical and clinical groups at Toronto, Harvard, Yale, and Johns Hopkins universities, among others. Many of those he met became close professional colleagues and helped to stimulate his interest in peripheral nerve injuries.

Sunderland returned to Melbourne at the end of 1939, after the outbreak of World War II, to find a university suffering from the constraints of funding and manpower. He took over the bulk of administration and teaching in the anatomy department, aided by a skeleton staff of mainly volunteer surgeons. He also became a visiting specialist at the 115th Australian Military Hospital, Heidelberg, where soldiers suffering from peripheral nerve injuries were sent. Presented with a wealth of clinical material, he studied the treatment and recovery of these men. His widely admired monograph Nerves and Nerve Injuries (1968) drew heavily on this research.

Consolidating his position in the faculty of medicine, Sunderland was elected dean in 1953. Under his leadership the medical school grew to be one of the premier academic institutions in the country. Following Sir Keith Murray’s report (1957) and the subsequent Menzies government initiatives to strengthen and expand Australian universities, Sunderland skilfully used his political contacts to get the best for his school, much to the annoyance of many outside his discipline. A brilliant strategist, he headed off the prospect for a new medical school at La Trobe University in favour of doubling the capacity at Melbourne. The result was a significant increase in funding, buildings, and staff. In 1961 he was appointed professor of experimental neurology.

A man of ‘quiet dignity, with stern yet twinkling eyes’ (Ryan 1995, 251), Sunderland worked long hours and kept a sofa-bed at the university for the nights when it was too late to catch the tram home. Despite his administrative commitments, he was a successful laboratory researcher and published regularly. He also maintained an interest in the work of observational biologists and particularly in morphological studies of Indigenous Australians. A frequent traveller, he held visiting professorships at Johns Hopkins University (1953–54) and the University of California (1977). He was a member of numerous State and Federal government committees, including the Australian Universities Commission (1962–75); a governor (1964–93) of the Ian Potter Foundation; and a foundation fellow (1954) of the Australian Academy of Science. He was also instrumental in helping to establish several medical schools in South-East Asia. During the 1970s he was awarded honorary doctorates by the universities of Tasmania, Queensland, and Melbourne, and by Monash University. Having been appointed CBE (1960), he was knighted in 1971. That year he relinquished his deanship. He retired in 1975, but continued working in the anatomy department and would publish Nerve Injuries and Their Repair in 1991.

While Sir Sydney and Lady Sunderland’s well-catered tennis parties at their Toorak home were legendary, the couple also loved to retreat to their property at Lorne. In 1983 he was lucky to escape unscathed after staying to successfully defend their coastal home during the Ash Wednesday bushfires. Survived by his wife and their son, he died on 27 August 1993 at Richmond and was cremated. An international group for the study of peripheral nerves had been renamed the Sunderland Society in his honour in 1981.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Darian-Smith, Ian. ‘Sydney Sunderland: 1910–1993.’ Historical Records of Australian Science 11, no. 1 (June 1996): 51–65
  • Jones, Ross L. Humanity’s Mirror: 150 Years of Anatomy in Melbourne. Melbourne: Haddington Press, 2007
  • Ryan, Graeme B. ‘Obituary.’ Journal of Anatomy 187, no. 1 (1995): 249–51
  • Sunderland, Ian. Personal communication
  • Sunderland, Sydney. ‘The Melbourne Medical School and Some of Its “Characters” 1931–1975.’ Chiron: Journal of the University of Melbourne Medical Society 2, no. 2 (1992): 46
  • University of Melbourne Archives. 1996.0035, Sunderland, Sir Sydney (1906–1993)

Additional Resources

Citation details

Ross L. Jones, 'Sunderland, Sir Sydney (Syd) (1910–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2017, accessed online 14 June 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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