Edward George Brownstein
20 February 1933 - 16 May 2014
Eddie Brownstein retired country surgeon, family man, thinker, philanthropist, a passionate and deeply compassionate man died at the age of 81 in May this year.
Eddie was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, the youngest of the three children of Marcus and Minnie Brownstein. Minnie died when he was 3 years old and he was raised by an African nannie. His father had grown up in a poor Jewish family and worked his way up to become a prominent and wealthy broker on the South African Stock exchange.
Eddie 's medical career began in traction, recovering from a fractured femur sustained in a schoolboy rugby match at the end of his secondary schooling. His father had encouraged him to study law but in the months of hospital confinement he had discovered the writings of Albert Schweitzer, a famous African medical missionary. He was inspired by this and decided to study medicine. Apartheid was introduced around this time in 1948. The vague disquiet he had as a child about the unequal lives of black and white South Africans gave way to awareness of the cruelty and injustice suffered by the black majority.
Witwatersrand University, where he gained his undergraduate medical degree in 1956, was a center of student protests and a focus of state repression. Students were frequently dragged from lecture theatres by the police for speaking out. He developed a strong interest in social justice and activism which remained a life long vocation. It was at university that he met and married Kitty Mills, a university librarian. He saw the brutality of the apartheid system first hand as a young graduate doctor. The impoverished state of the black community and the violent suppression visited on it was only too apparent in the emergency wards he worked in.
With his first child (to be joined by 6 others) and young wife, Eddie left for Edinburgh in 1959 to further his surgical training. He gained his Surgical fellowship in 1960.
In 1961 while still working in Edinburgh news of the Sharpville Massacre filtered through. A peaceful protest by African women, accompanied by their children, against restrictive work permits was fired upon by South African police. At least 80 people were killed. The sense of obligation to return to South Africa was strong but this event convinced the Brownsteins that a safe life for their young family lay elsewhere. Together they made the difficult decision not to return home but to immigrate to Australia.
In late 1961 the Brownstein's arrived in Horsham in Western Victoria. The flat plains of the Wimmera and the distant Grampians reminded the home sick family of the Transvaal.
Eddie joined the medical practice at Lister House, initially as a GP. The uncertainty and unmasterable scope of General Practice did not suit him and he commenced full time surgical practice, attaining his FRACS in 1965.
He was a solo surgeon at Wimmera Base Hospital for the first 10 years. The pre seat belt, speed and alcohol restriction era saw a constant and distressing stream of motor vehicle trauma from the Western Highway. He became an adept trauma surgeon and brought other skills to the Wimmera including joint replacement surgery, and urology. He worked closely with his city colleagues and gained a reputation of excellence. He began training Surgical registrars from The Royal Melbourne Hospital in 1974 and was joined by Mr Ben Teo briefly then Mr Graham Kitchen in 1976. He compiled data that showed Horsham was an epicenter on the highway to Adelaide ( being roughly equidistant from each city ) for these accidents and postulated that driver fatigue was the cause. With the help of the local Rotary club and local schools a series of signs indicating a "fatigue zone" were deployed on the highway. Eventually this approach was adopted on highways Statewide.
Supported by GP anaesthetists and specialists Dr Max Griffiths and Dr Rex Bennett the theatre at Wimmera Base hospital became a centre of excellence and learning. Sister Eileen McManus made sure the jokes remained suitable for her nursing staff.
Eddie loved his work and touched many peoples lives. His son, John, recalled at his funeral how the family would continue to encounter grateful patients all over Victoria: "While working in Swanhill a man told me his story of Dad saving the life of a lady who had her legs crushed against the front of Poon Ming's grocery store. Dad had also operated on this man and encouraged him into the teaching profession. Dad delivered first aid lessons to his students."
He was no saint though. His temper was legendary. John recalled how he had once responded to being harassed by "hoons" on the road by stopping at an intersection, getting out of his car, removing the drivers sunglasses and stomping on them. "However he was a humble and unpretentious man. He always acknowledged his short comings and had a strong sense of humility"
He loved the outdoors. His son, Michael, recalled him raising cattle on the family's small farm, building rockeries, pergolas and a hut in the Grampians. His work uniform being Khakis and a floppy hat. Sometimes his surgical skills would cross over into the veterinary sphere. The odd castrated calf would make it out of the yards dangling Lister House artery forceps, to be retrieved later in the paddock.
He was a keen supporter of the Provincial Surgeons association and its president in 1984.
Eddie continued his social activism. In 1978 he established the Drakensberg Charitable Trust using his inheritance from his father's estate as the capital base. The trust began to donate unpretentiously and often anonymously to medical research, social justice and aid organizations. Over decades of support he developed strong links with these organizations including Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, Medicins Sans Frontieres, The Burnet Institute, Amnesty International and others.
In 2013 he was awarded the first Australian Amnesty International Freedom Award in acknowledgement of the 50 years of activism and support he had given to defending human rights. He had established the Horsham branch in 1964.
In 1986 Eddie and Kitty left Horsham and moved to Melbourne to be closer to their now adult children. He was made a life governor of Wimmera Base Hospital in acknowledgement of his years of dedicated service. He was greatly missed by his friends, colleagues and community
In Melbourne he returned to University completing a Batchelor of Arts (Melb ) in 1990 majoring in politics.and went on to complete a Masters of Bioethics at Monash University in 1999 with a thesis on pain relief and causation of death in the setting of Palliative care. He served as a valued member of Walter and Eliza Hall Institute's ethics committee for 10 years. He worked during this time as a Trauma surgeon at the Alfred Hospital, a general surgeon at Box Hill hospital and saw out his surgical career at La Trobe Valley Community Hospital in Moe commuting from their home in the hills of Tynong North. He retired in 1999.
Kitty died in 2000. He was devastated by the loss but went on to find new love and life. He married his second wife Beverley the following year. They enjoyed 14 years together living in Ivanhoe. He continued to manage the growing Drakensburg trust, enjoy their beautiful garden, music and his large and expanded family
Professor David Vaux of Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, once himself a resident at Wimmera Base Hospital, wrote
"Whatever Eddie did, it was always with grace competence, integrity, compassion and good humour. He was a renaissance man, an intelligent man and a caring man. A true gentleman who will be greatly missed"
Obituary kindly provided by Gerard Brownstein