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Gwenifer Catherine (Gwen) Wilson (1916–1998)

by Barry Baker

This article was published online in 2023

Gwenifer Catherine May Wilson (1916–1998), anaesthetist and medical historian, was born on 12 October 1916 at Broken Hill, New South Wales, elder daughter of New South Wales-born George Henry Bruce, schoolteacher, and his South Australian-born wife Ellen Violet, née Orchard, who had also been a schoolteacher before her marriage. Because her father moved around different schools in New South Wales, Gwen’s education was varied: she attended Ulmarra, Wauchope, and Moss Vale Public schools and Barellan, Parramatta, and Orange high schools; she was dux at Moss Vale (1928) and Orange (1933). Winning a public exhibition to the University of Sydney (MB, BS, 1939), she studied medicine.

Dr Bruce, as she was in 1939, started her professional life as a resident medical officer at Balmain Hospital in Sydney, where she administered anaesthesia for surgical operations. On 14 February 1942 at the Presbyterian Church, Mosman, she married an anaesthetist, Charles Ffranks Bernard, with whom she had two children, Richard and Janet. Encouraged and tutored by the highly qualified anaesthetist Andy Distin Morgan, in 1945 she gained the two-part postgraduate diploma in anaesthesia from the University of Sydney. She held appointments as honorary anaesthetist to Balmain, Rachel Forster, and Royal North Shore hospitals. Because she was a woman, her progression was barred at Royal North Shore, so she resigned that position. In 1956 she was appointed honorary consultant anaesthetist at Balmain and honorary anaesthetist to Sydney and St George hospitals, becoming honorary consultant anaesthetist to the latter two institutions in 1968.

Not long after obtaining her diploma, Bernard had become a member of the Australian Society of Anaesthetists (ASA). Displaying what was to become her trademark energy, she became chairman of the New South Wales section (1951–54) and then federal secretary (1954–56). She was awarded foundation membership (1952) and fellowship (1956) of the Faculty of Anaesthetists, Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (RACS). Her marriage did not survive, partly because of her work for the ASA—including her insisting on attending a crucial meeting—but also because Charles ‘made her take his night calls as well as her own’ (Thirlwell Jones 1999, 12, original emphasis).

Being a solo mother with two children while managing a busy professional life was stressful, and Bernard was diagnosed with two duodenal ulcers in 1961. Her physician advised that she give up her anaesthetic practice for six months. Mary Burnell, an Adelaide anaesthetist and a friend, advised her to occupy her time recording oral history interviews with specialist pioneers. Undertaking research in preparation for these interviews, she realised that no one knew who had given the first anaesthetic in Australia. She was almost immediately ‘hooked’ (Wilson 1996) on this quest, and the history of anaesthesia would become her life’s passion. Her bibliographic research would eventually be published in 1988 as A Bibliography of References to Anaesthesia in Australian Medical Journals 1846–1962.

On 15 September 1961 at the registrar general’s office, Sydney, Bernard married a notable Sydney colorectal surgeon, Thomas Edward (Ted) Wilson (d. 1972), who would support her strongly with her history interests and publications; in doing so she acquired two stepsons. She started on a history, which ultimately became One Grand Chain: The History of Anaesthesia in Australia 1846–1962; Volume 1, covering the years 1846 to 1934, would be published in 1995. While this work was progressing, she also prepared a history of the ASA, which was published in 1987 as Fifty Years: The Australian Society of Anaesthetists 1934–1984. She was passionate about the history of Australian anaesthesia, and had many battles with senior individuals in the ASA and the Faculty of Anaesthetists, RACS, who were unable to see value in the history of their profession. Appointed honorary historian of the Faculty of Anaesthetists (1966–92), she received financial assistance from the faculty after retiring from anaesthetic clinical work in 1981, which provided the funds to travel the world lecturing and researching.

Other awards and accolades bestowed on Wilson included life membership of the ASA (1976); the society’s Gilbert Brown award (1987); the medal of the Faculty of Anaesthetists (1988); and the faculty’s Robert Orton medal (1990). In 1994 she gave the Herbert Moran memorial lecture in medical history for the RACS, and the ASA named their archives after her. She submitted her bibliography and Fifty Years to the University of Sydney for the degree of doctor of medicine, which was awarded in 1995. The same year the Wood Library–Museum of Anesthesiology of the American Society of Anesthesiologists named her its inaugural Laureate of the History of Anesthesia.

‘Forthright and outspoken,’ Wilson ‘was a driving force’ in all she did (Thirlwell Jones 1999, 15). She loved the sea, and later in life lived by the beach at Mollymook; other passions included art, music, and entertaining. Although she had intended to take her history through to 1962, with a second volume planned for One Grand Chain, she became unwell with cancer and could not complete it. She died on 31 October 1998 at Terrey Hills, survived by the son and daughter of her first marriage and her two stepsons; she was cremated. The second volume of One Grand Chain would be completed with the assistance of Garry Phillips, Barry Baker, and Jeanette Thirlwell Jones.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Cooper, Michael G. ‘A Woman of History.’ Anaesthesia Intensive Care 27, no. 1 (February 1999): 110–11
  • Greene, Nicholas M. ‘Dr. Gwenifer Wilson: First Laureate of the History of Anesthesia.’ Anesthesiology 85, no. 4 (October 1996): 703–5
  • Thirlwell Jones, Jeanette. ‘Gwen Wilson—A Tribute.’ Australian Society of Anaesthetists Newsletter, January 1999, 12–15
  • Wilson, Gwenifer. Curriculum Vitae and Bibliography prepared for Wood Library-Museum of Anesthesiology, 16 June 1995. Gwen Wilson Archives, Australian Society of Anaesthetists
  • Wilson, Gwenifer. Interview by Max Blythe, 27–28 March 1996. Transcript. MSVA 123, Royal College of Physicians and Oxford Brookes University Medical Sciences Video Archive

Additional Resources

Citation details

Barry Baker, 'Wilson, Gwenifer Catherine (Gwen) (1916–1998)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wilson-gwenifer-catherine-gwen-32727/text40681, published online 2023, accessed online 5 March 2024.

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