Geoffrey Richard Trembath Serpell
29 December 1923 - 08 December 2014
Noted Melbourne Ophthalmologist, Geoffrey Richard Trembath Serpell, has died peacefully after a short illness in his 91st year.
The second child of Albert and Dorothy (nee Trembath), he and siblings Don and Ruth, grew up successively in Heidelberg, Brunswick and Kew, where his father was a Pharmacist.
He attended St Thomas' Grammar, which became Essendon Grammar - now Penleigh and Essendon Grammar - and at a recent reunion was present as one of the last remaining links to St Thomas' Grammar. He excelled scholastically and gained entry into University High School in 1936. Outstanding results enabled admission to the University of Melbourne at the age of 16, where he completed the six year medical course (which was foreshortened during the Second World War to five years), graduating M.B., B.S., in April 1946, age 22. He excelled in pathology, setting the focus for later research.
After two years as Resident Medical Officer at Prince Henry's Hospital, he commenced specialist training at the Eye and Ear Hospital from 1948 to 1950. While at Prince Henry's he had the great good fortune to meet Mary Bottomley, Bacteriologist, whom he married in December 1950, and soon after they embarked for London, to spend three years postgraduate study in Ophthalmology, as was the custom at that time, returning a F.R.C.S.E (Fellow Royal College Surgeons Edinburgh) - further Fellowships of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (F.R.A.C.S) and Australian (F.R.A.C.O) and English Colleges of Ophthalmology followed.
They returned to Melbourne in 1954 - Serpell as Ship's Surgeon on the Largs Bay. He was appointed to the Senior Medical Staff of Prince Henry's and the Eye and Ear Hospitals, established his Private Practice at 105 Collins Street, and became Senior Honorary Ophthalmologist and Head of Unit at Prince Henry's in 1963, a position he held for many years. He was Ophthalmologist to Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital, a Medical Examiner for various civil aviation bodies for 45 years, and a Flight Lieutenant in the Air Force Reserve.
During those years he served his specialty undertaking clinical, teaching, and research leadership roles in his hospitals and professional bodies, including the Ophthalmological Society of Australia (precursor of RACO) as Council Member and Victorian President, Diploma in Ophthalmology Board of Studies - University of Melbourne, the Orthoptist Board, and Chairman of Examiners in Ophthalmology for both Colleges of Surgeons and Ophthalmologists.
He had an enquiring, energetic, and visionary outlook and was keen to explore new ideas and techniques. He performed the first operation for correction of squint under acupuncture in 1978 and established the Museum of the College of Ophthalmologists in 1959, of which he was Curator until 1984.
Whilst in the UK, he undertook clinical work at Moorfields and The London Hospitals, and was Moorfields Research Fellow in Pathology at The Institute of Ophthalmology, University of London, resulting in a significant contribution to the understanding of blindness of prematurity.
In the 1940's, Dr Kate Campbell, Paediatrician at the Royal Women's Hospital, Melbourne, observed a dramatic increase in blindness in premature infants due to Retrolental Fibroplasia, and postulated that it may have been due to high oxygen concentrations delivered to babies in their incubators. Undertaking experimental work at the Institute of Ophthalmology, Serpell and others demonstrated that oxygen interfered with development of retinal blood vessels and subsequent exposure to normal air caused scarring (fibrosis) and retinal detachment, mimicking the features of Retrolental Fibroplasia, hence providing a rationale for prevention of this cause of blindness.
With equal vision, Serpell founded the Glaucoma Research Unit at the Eye and Ear Hospital in 1957 and headed it until 1963. This was the first Specialist Unit at the Eye and Ear Hospital and also the first Specialist Glaucoma Clinic in Australia. The clinic was highly successful and rapidly grew, necessitating the appointment of three additional Ophthalmologists. The clinic pioneered new treatments, such as the use of Diamox, a diuretic for reducing the high intraocular pressure of glaucoma, and provided a service for standardisation of tonometers (an instrument to measure intraocular pressure), and published research; in many ways the clinic was half a century ahead of its time, practicing in a framework similar to the current Academic Health Science Centre model of medical excellence based on the three pillars of clinical service, teaching and research.
Serpell had an eclectic range of interests which occupied him in later years, although he was still actively consulting when 80. He was a bibliophile, with significant collections on Australian and Medical History, the Antarctica, Frederick Wood Jones and comparative anatomy, the platypus, religion, ballet and art. A keen cricket enthusiast, he was a fifty year member of the Melbourne Cricket Club and was a loyal attendee at reunions of 1936 University High Group and M.B., B.S. graduates of 1946, although only a handful of these remained. He was a member of the Wallaby Club, writing "Wallabies of Yore", a collection of extensively researched biographical sketches on over fifty distinguished previous members. In his late eighties, he presented an historical paper on Sir William McKenzie's contributions to Ophthalmology to the Cowlishaw Symposium of RACS.
A generous and grateful man, full of encouragement for others, with a strong work ethic, who led by example, he is survived by his wife of sixty-four years, Mary, his sons and daughters-in-law, Richard, Jonathan and Tricia, Andrew and Anne, Michael and Hitomi and his grandsons James and William.
Jonathan Serpell FRACS