David Melville Birks FRACS
5 July 1945 – 17 March 2019

David Melville Birks was destined to be a surgeon, a good one, and educator.

His grandfather, Melville Birks FRCS, an Adelaide graduate, worked at the London Hospital and in rural South Australia, finally becoming Surgeon Superintendent of Broken Hill Hospital, where he also undertook much important research work on miners’ silicosis and lead poisoning.

Melville’s son, Walter ‘Gordon’ Birks BEM FRCS, operated through the Blitz in London in WWII before returning as Surgeon to the Yallourn Hospital, and serving the Moe District of Victoria with distinction over the period 1951-1977.

David, the eldest of Gordon’s two sons, attended primary school in the Latrobe Valley prior to the Geelong College, where he also excelled in rowing and Australian Rules football, continuing these sports at Ormond College, University of Melbourne.

During his six undergraduate years at the Melbourne Medical School, he met and married a fellow medical student, Kaye Pamela Harris: their union produced a daughter and two sons: one son, currently practising as a General Practitioner in Moe.

David then elected to pursue a surgical career, commencing at the Royal Melbourne Hospital and culminating in the well-established path of postgraduate studies abroad: along the way, gaining the surgical fellowships of the Canadian College, the Edinburgh College and in 1977, the Australasian College. Whilst in Vancouver he took up running and returning to Victoria continued with this pastime, running in ten consecutive Melbourne Marathons.

Over the period 1977-2012 David worked as a general surgeon at the Latrobe Valley Hospital (LVH), Moe, and finally at the amalgamated Latrobe Regional Hospital (LRH), Traralgon: he also provided surgical services at the Maryvale Private Hospital, Morwell, which his father had opened in March 1991. He was Chair of the Division of Surgery at LVH for 10 years and Chair of the General Surgical Group at LRH for a further 10 years.

In January 1993 he accepted the position of part-time Lecturer in Surgery at the newly formed Centre for Rural Health at Monash University. David had been appointed Dean of Clinical Studies at LRH in 1992, only resigning from this position seventeen years later in 2009: in 2002 he served as Acting Director of Monash Rural Health and in July 2003 was appointed Clinical Associate Professor for Monash Rural Health.

David had an abiding interest in, and passion for, rural surgery: a regular attender and contributor at meetings of the Provincial Surgeons of Australia (PSA), he convened a highly successful PSA meeting at Moe in 1995. He was Chair of the RACS Rural Surgical Training Program from 1997 to 2003, and, a most worthy recipient of the RACS Rural Surgeons Award in 2013.

In 2004 he completed a Graduate Certificate in Health Professional Education, and in 2008, a Master of Health Professional Education. Initially an EMST instructor, and then Director, David’s interests took him to the ‘Care of the Critically ill Surgical Patients Course’, CCrlSP in 2004, where he became faculty for the instructor course, developing a structured and comprehensive approach to the management of surgical patients.

From 2003-2005 he was the College Education Fellow in residence and was convener for surgical education at the Hong Kong ASC in 2008. In the ‘Surgical News’ of February 2005 an article was published under the heading, ‘College staff to tackle world’s toughest team event for good cause’: the article went on to explain that the ‘Spring Squad’ was in training to participate in the Oxfam Melbourne Trailwalker, ‘under the leadership of an experienced marathon runner’, one David Birks.

The ‘Latrobe Valley Express’ newspaper of August 2009 reported that David had joined the ‘Specialists without Borders’ group, as one of the speakers at a conference in the Rwandan capital Kigali, to discuss medical and surgical emergencies

In 2011 David introduced the ‘Non-Technical Skills for Surgeons’ (NOTTS) course to the Australasian College, and he was the founding chair of this important area of one of the four main determinants of surgical outcomes, the interpersonal factors. He was the recipient of the RACS ‘Outstanding Service to the Community Award’ In 2014 for his long-term commitment to the people of Gippsland.

David’s interests were manifold: particularly those of family and career; his love of classical music led to his becoming a patron of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra: tragically, his fondness for running, precipitated his presentation with sudden dyspnoea due to a malignant pleural effusion. Against all the odds and with never a word of self-pity, David heroically embarked on a final battle with an unconquerable foe over a period of many years.

Despite the many adverse side-effects of, at times, experimental treatment, David continued with his beloved teaching until no longer physically possible, and to the very end maintained his wide and varied interests, especially in College matters.

Of him, it can truly be said, that he was, ‘suaviter in modo…fortiter in re’.                                              ‘Gentle in manner…resolute in deed’.


Obituary kindly provided by Mr Peter F. Burke FRACS