George William Westlake A.M.
10 July 1927 - 27 June 2012
George Westlake, a pioneer in heart surgery in Australia, a
superb technical surgeon, and innovator who was also responsible
for training many cardiothoracic surgeons died recently, from
pneumonia that complicated a long illness, at home, in Rye,
surrounded by his family.
Born in Perth, he attended Perth Modern School, a selective
entry high school, during the war years from 1939 to 1945. Bob
Hawke and Rolf Harris were fellow students!
After first year science at the University of Western Australia,
he studied medicine at the University of Melbourne, (there was no
medical school in Perth), graduating in 1950.
George spent his early medical years at the Alfred Hospital,
then trained in thoracic surgery, at the Repatriation General, and
Royal Melbourne Hospitals, completing his F.R.A.C.S. in 1956.
He married Barbara Brumley, a nursing sister at the Alfred
Hospital, in 1952, and together they had 3 daughters, Jenny, Anna
In 1956, Westlake, with his young family, travelled by ship to
London, where he worked at the Royal Brompton Hospital under the
mentorship of Lord Russell Brock, (Thoracic Surgeon to King George
VI). These were pioneering days of heart surgery. Dr. John Gibbon
had just invented the heart lung machine in 1955 in Philadelphia.
So in 1958 Westlake also travelled to the USA to study the critical
developments which were taking place there.
Westlake returned as Cardiothoracic Surgeon at the Royal
Melbourne Hospital in 1958, and, was also appointed Director of
Heart Surgery at the Royal Children's Hospital, from 1958 to
Cardiac surgery at this time encompassed repair of congenital
"holes in the heart", and "opening up" heart valves, narrowed at
birth or by Rheumatic Fever, usually in children and young
In 1970, following a review of cardiac surgery in Melbourne, two
cardiac surgery units were established: at the Alfred Hospital,
(Monash University) and the University of Melbourne Open Heart
Surgery Unit at St. Vincent's Hospital, where the patients from the
Royal Melbourne, Austin and St. Vincent's Hospitals were operated,
and subsequently sent back on the second post operative day for
continuing management. This rationalized system allowed pooling of
resources, efficiencies, and concentration of expertise, and
despite logistic problems, generally served the patients well.
With successful heart valve replacement surgery and the ever
expanding need for coronary bypass, the Royal Melbourne Hospital
re-established its own cardiac surgery unit in 1982. Westlake was
Head of Cardiothoracic Surgery at the Royal Melbourne from 1977
till 1988 and Director of the University of Melbourne Open Heart
Surgery Unit from 1978 to 1982.
He was a gifted surgeon, ambidextrous, quick and decisive, able
to perform complex surgery (that others often found difficult)
effortlessly with ease and elegance. He operated with grace under
pressure and achieved excellent results. He performed over 10,000
major lung and heart operations in his professional lifetime
He was enthusiastic and inquisitive, constantly improving
surgical techniques, and helped introduce new procedures: Repair
and replacement of heart valves, the thoracic aorta, challenging
procedures to correct complex congenital heart defects and coronary
artery bypass surgery.
The enormity of these tasks should be seen in the context of
developing these procedures step by step with colleagues, as they
were being performed for the first time. Echocardiography, CT
scanning and MRI were not yet invented, and heart lung machine
technology was rudimentary.
Westlake and his colleagues progressively improved and refined
heart operations, incorporating the latest advances. Operative risk
was reduced from 20% in the 1960s, to 5-10% in the 1970s further
reducing to 1-5% in the 1980s. Operations that took 6-12 hours and
used upto18 units (6litres) of blood were transformed to 3-4 hours
and frequently performed without blood.
Westlake was also a key member of a number of philanthropic
surgical teams that travelled to Burma and Thailand in the 1960s
and 70s, repairing heart defects and mentoring young surgeons,
experiences he found fulfilling.
Westlake introduced "Cardioplegia" for heart protection during
surgery, in 1977 after a visit to St. Thomas's Hospital in London,
still used today albeit with some modifications and was the first
to implant the St. Jude Medical bileaflet pyrolytic carbon
mechanical heart valve in Australasia, in August 1978. This valve
has proven to have excellent results, and is still used today, with
over 2 million implants worldwide.
Westlake also supported the establishment of heart surgery at
Epworth Private Hospital in September 1981, despite significant
opposition from within the profession. This became an outstanding
venture, not only in the excellent service provided to patients,
with superb results, but also, the large database that was
generated has formed the basis of multiple publications, pivotal in
establishing Melbourne's international reputation for coronary
surgery, particularly with arterial grafting.
Following a number of difficult years and divorce, George
remarried, Maureen Thorp, in 1977. Socially, George had many great
friends from a wide spectrum of society, - medicine, media and
entertainment and charity groups. He developed a passion for jazz,
and became a keen exponent of the trombone.
Westlake was adventurous and irrepressible and undertook new
experiences with a "dare devil" approach and much glee, - and was
especially captivated by scuba diving
Unfortunately in 1985, Westlake's career was dramatically
disrupted by a "parasailing" accident whilst holidaying in
Queensland. He fractured both forearms and both hips, requiring
many orthopaedic operations and significant rehabilitation. With
great tenacity and spirit he returned to surgery for another five
years retiring at 65 in 1992. We can only imagine the degree of
pain that dogged him through those final years which he faced with
great courage and equanimity.
Westlake always made an impression on people, with his good
looks, intellect, disarming directness, and warmth. He had a great
sense of humour, disliked political correctness, and was fiercely
loyal to the staff, who in turn adored and respected him. He was
also admired by his colleagues at the Royal Melbourne and Epworth
Hospitals. His generosity to his colleagues and staff was legendary
as evidenced by the many social events, including Christmas
functions for over 100 people on many occasions that George and his
wife Maureen hosted, ensuring a great time and a gift for every
Despite these many facets, George Westlake's great love was
clinical cardiac surgery which he performed with exquisite skill,
and with outstanding results for which his patients and their
families were eternally grateful.
In 1988 (Australian Bicentenary) he was honoured with an Order
of Australia Award for "Services to Medicine, particularly as a
George spent the 20 years post retirement travelling, fishing,
deep sea diving, playing golf on the Mornington Peninsula, enjoying
friends, but mostly spending time with his loving family. He died
just two weeks short of his 85th birthday and is
survived by brother Donald, wife Maureen, daughters Jenny, Anna and
Lisa and 8 grandchildren.
James Tatoulis FRACS, FCSANZ