John Keith Henderson, AO, MBBS, FRACS, FRCS
1923 - 2017
John Keith Henderson, universally known as Keith was born and raised in Perth WA. In 1940 he came east to study medicine at the University of Melbourne. He graduated the end of 1945 and started as a resident medical officer at St Vincent's Hospital Melbourne, spending two years as Frank Morgan's registrar in the neurosurgical unit before travelling to the UK in November 1950 with his newly acquired wife Pixie Doyle. They remained devoted to each other for the next 65 years.
It was during his time at St Vincent's he came under the influence of Arthur Schuller, the Austrian Jewish refugee radiologist who arrived in Melbourne in 1940. Schuller did much of the early work in neuroradiology and was an urbane, witty and brilliant clinician. The next four years were spent in Oxford as a neurosurgical trainee in the professorial department, initially under the direction of the Adelaide neurosurgeon, Sir Hugh Cairns who was succeeded by Joe Pennybacker after Cairn's untimely death. The intellectual and cultural life of Oxford were a revelation and remained an abiding memory for the rest of his life.
In 1955 he returned from the UK to a position as neurosurgeon at St Vincent's Hospital where he remained for the rest of his career. Slowly the intellectual rigour of Oxford was introduced to the hospital albeit in fits and starts. He gradually instituted ward rounds which included nursing and allied health staff followed by coffee and St Vincent's scones with cream in the clinic room of St Francis Ward, becoming a hospital institution. Keith knew exactly what he was doing, this was teambuilding and patient centred care long before these terms became abused. He loved teaching and found an open market to sell his wares.
He was head of the unit from 1966 until his retirement at the age of 65 in 1988. During that time he was instrumental in creating an extraordinary teaching environment which is remembered with fondness by students, residents and of course neurosurgical trainees. His enquiring mind drove him to be at the forefront of the dramatic changes that occurred in neurosurgery postwar. He championed aneurysm and pituitary surgery in particular and was among the first to introduce microsurgical techniques to neurosurgery in Australia. He acknowledged the essential multidisciplinary nature of neurosurgery and the importance of good relations across the disciplines. Keith had a great appreciation of pathology which he shared with his long-term neuropathology colleague Dr Ross Anderson. He thrilled at the nuances of neuroradiology from his earliest days with Arthur Schuller, through the era of neurosurgeons carrying out their own invasive investigations and then working with Eric Gilford ensuring St Vincent's was at the vanguard of the CT era by becoming one of the first hospitals in Australia to take up the technology.
St. Vincent's was truly his home away from home and with the passage of time he became more deeply involved in its affairs. He served on multiple hospital committees and eventually became chairman of the Senior Medical Staff and close contact with Sister Maureen Walters, the Sister Administrator with whom he developed a close personal and working relationship.
In 1987 he was awarded the Order of Australia for services to medicine.
He retired from active neurosurgery on his 65th birthday in January 1988 when he retired from St Vincent's because he did "not want to be the last person to know he was no good", the prospect of hurting someone was an absolute anathema. He took on the position of Chairman, committee for medical graduate education at St Vincent's from 1989 to 1991.
He had time to indulge his love of reading, predominantly non-fiction and especially poetry, the library was his favourite place in the house. This was the time when he started his biography of Schuller, which was all but complete at the time of his death. He is remembered by his friends and family as a shy man but a person of great personal warmth and care for his fellow human particularly those whose welfare had been entrusted to him.
This obituary was kindly provided by Michael A Henderson FRACS and Peter McNeill FRACS.