Last Update: 04/06/2014 14:29
4 July 1934-4 January 2010
Peter Graeme Petty, a skillful and innovative surgeon and
teacher who played a major role in the development of neurosurgery
in Australia, has died of a heart attack in the driveway of his
holiday home Balnarring on the Mornington Peninsula. He was 75.
From before his appointments in 1967 as Assistant Neurosurgeon
at both The Royal Melbourne Hospital and Prince Henry's Hospital to
beyond his retirement from operative neurosurgery 10 years ago, he
taught at graduate and post-graduate level. The later stint guided
two further generations of Australian neurosurgeons. Born in
Melbourne to Alice (nee Patterson) and Valentine Petty, the eldest
of five siblings, he was educated at Deepdene State School and East
Kew Central School before winning a scholarship to Scotch
His parents were children of the Depression and he was the first
of his family to go to university, paving the way for his four
siblings to also obtain tertiary qualifications. From a young age
he displayed manual and technical skills that he would later draw
on as a surgeon. He carved models of World War II aircraft in
precise detail from balsa wood, and built crystal radio sets on
which he followed the progress of the war as the Japanese forces
reached New Guinea and bombed Darwin.
He discovered the magazine, Popular Mechanics, and taught
himself electronics. He constructed powerful amplifiers and housed
them in beautifully handcrafted cabinets. He was also a car buff.
There were always bodies of cars in the backyard of the family home
undergoing transplants of one part or another.
Peter drove in car rallies such as the Ampol trials and won
trophies with younger brother, Robin, as navigator. By the time he
entered Ormond College at The University of Melbourne to study
medicine in 1952, he was skilled in electronics, mechanics, fine
carving and cabinetry.
After graduating in 1957, he specialised in surgery and in 1963
gained fellowship of The Royal Australasian College of Surgeons. In
many respects his next degree, Master of Surgery at The University
of Melbourne in 1964, defined him. At that time, it was a research
degree of high quality and throughout his life he practiced
research-based medicine or surgery, long before it became a trendy
An extraordinary anatomist, he was appointed Senior Lecturer in
Anatomy at The University of Melbourne in 1962, and brought both a
practicality and intense scientific interest to his teaching.
Former students will remember him with a freshly harvested brain in
one hand and a pocketknife in the other, before proceeding to
dissect the brain with extraordinary skill and dexterity. His
postgraduate training in Britain was under Joe Pennybacker at the
Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford and Valentine Loague, at Queens
Square and Maida Vale - at the time preeminent centres of
neurosurgical training. He then took a most unusual pathway for an
Australian surgeon, spending a year studying under Ross Adey at the
Space Biology Laboratory, Brain Research Institute at the
University of California, Los Angeles, studying behaviour
modification using electromagnetic radiation. Adey, the brilliant
and eclectic neurophysiologist, was later known for his work on the
CIA's infamous Pandora project.
Peter was strongly influenced by Adey's neurophysiological and
electrophysiological studies. In his later life, he became
interested in consciousness, an interdisciplinary subject to which
philosophers, psychologists and physiologists normally contribute.
It was very unusual to have a surgeon publishing in this field.
Peter returned to Melbourne in 1967, and began a lifetime in
neurosurgery, initially as an assistant at both The RMH and Prince
Henry's. He was Head of unit at Prince Henry's for 10 years from
1974 until 1984, and he remained at Royal Melbourne as a Senior
Lecturer in the Department of Surgery as a vigorous and active
member of the department until his death. He was president of the
Neurosurgical Society of Australasia in 1983 and '84, and Chairman
of the Board of Neurosurgery from 1982 to 1985. For the last 10
years he also chaired the Animal Ethics Committee at The University
of Melbourne and the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research.
Until his death he continued to devour a broad range of
scientific literature. Each week he would present the neurosurgery
library at the RMH with his annotated issues of the scientific
journals, Science and Nature. To all his undertakings he brought
the highest ethical, technical and academic standards; he had a
profound impact on the practice of neurosurgery throughout
Australia and on the lives of countless patients.
Peter is survived by his wife Philippa, whom he married in 1959,
his daughters Susie and Liz, grandchildren Amelia, Lily, Gus,
Hector and Harriet, his sister Adrienne, and brothers Richard and
Michael. His brother, Robin, predeceased him.
Andrew Kaye is Professor of Surgery, The University of
Melbourne. Adrienne Clarke, Laureate Professor, School of Botany,
The University of Melbourne, is Peter Petty's sister.
By Andrew Kaye and Adrienne Clarke
Go to the main
page of In memoriam