Dr Bernie Curran honours his friend and mentor, the late Dr Peter Hendry.

In Memory of Dr Peter Hendry 1915 - 2017

Wednesday, 11 October 2017


by Dr Bernie Curran

It is a great privilege to be asked to honour a man whom I have loved dearly, as a friend, as a mentor and, for me, as the supreme model of what it means to be human and to be an Australian.

My story begins with Peter in 1976 when I had just started my career at the University of Newcastle as a Lecturer in Classics and was captain of the University Rugby Club. He would come down to No.1 oval with the then Vice- Chancellor and mates like Alec Forsythe to watch the Rugby. They shared an old - fashioned view of the University as a place for the all-round development of students.

Peter studied Medicine at Sydney University. At first, inspired by his father's example he wanted to be a 'medical missionary' but over time that changed into Surgery and ultimately into Pathology. That was the right decision for him and certainly the best decision for Pathology.

Peter's first placement was at the Coast Hospital. He looked back at this as if it were part of some plan devised by fate. Hear his words on this:

‘It was situated well away from the main population on a lonely part of the coast between the prisoners at Long Bay and the Aboriginal settlement at La Perouse. It could only be reached with difficulty by road or by a long, slow tram ride. In one corner of the grounds in a special compound was a leper colony......In another corner about a mile away were the V.D. wards; in the third corner, the diphtheria and poliomyelitis wards and in the remaining corner the wards for other infectious diseases such as scarlet fever, measles, mumps, meningitis and so on.'

What an introduction to world of infection!

Peter, always the optimist, did however find one redeeming feature:

'There were lots of gorgeous looking girls in the large nurses' home in the grounds. The hospital had its own bay for swimming. There were tennis courts and a 9 hole golf course, so we were virtually self-sufficient'

There you have it - the classic Australian male solution to everything - sun, surf, sport and sex.

Bernie Curran and Peter Hendry

There was, however, an even greater test for Peter. When he and his medical mates enlisted in the AIF in 1940 he could not have envisaged what lay ahead for him on the Burma - Thailand Railway or in Changi. Once again, he was faced with infection - of a different kind-malaria, cholera, smallpox, typhus, bacterial and amoebic dysentery, beri- beri and tropical ulcers.

In what has been written about this period there are frequent references to Peter's leadership, his courage in standing up for his men. His generosity and his capacity for humour in the face of adversity.

At one of my meetings with Peter and Ian Stanger, a well-known and highly respected laboratory technician who worked with Peter for over 50 years - Peter shared a much deeper and more personal reflection on the extent to which he and his mates had to dig deep into their physical, psychological and moral reserves; it was one the few times he was reduced to tears. The cause - continuous suffering that knew no bounds, diseases for which there was no cure, despair that annihilated hope and death that dominated their daily fears and nightly dreams. Never before or since had he thought so much about the meaning and purpose of life, about suffering, about death, about family, and about the things that really matter. The only solution lay in themselves, in their daily meetings, in the sharing of their thoughts, their fears, their problems and their solutions. From this 'daily communion' there developed a solidarity of mateship and a loyalty, which would stay with him for the rest of his life. It was in this context that he developed his new philosophy - 'take each day as it comes; forget the past; and don't worry about the future.'

It’s interesting to note that Peter and Ian Stanger co- wrote the book 'It's In Your Blood' with the help of Emeritus Professor Ken Dutton. The book was launched by the then Vice-Chancellor Professor Nick Saunders and Peter and Ian donated the profits from the sale to the University Foundation.

When Peter returned to Australia, he went through an excruciating culture shock. He could not accept the lifestyle or values he saw all around him - the fascination with the trivial, the materialism, the artificiality, the selfishness and the prejudices. For him these were infections of another kind.

What saved him then was his reunion with his wife, Pat and his first meeting with his daughter, Rosemary who had been born after his departure for the war. Rosemary was the love of his life and there is a particular beauty in the fact that the child who helped restore his strength became the woman who has loved, cherished and nursed him in his challenges over the last few years.

As an aside, I should mention Peter was still capable of being the 'naughty' boy even at 102. It is only 3 weeks ago that Peter asked me to organise a visit for him to the NeW Space building in Hunter St. Despite his lack of mobility, his hearing and vision difficulties, he thought we could make a quick dash to NeW Space, race over to the Newcastle Club for a quick lunch with his mates, known as the Cordial Kids, and finish off with a quick round of golf. With that wicked twinkle in his eye, he added ' Rosemary need never know.'!

In 1947, Peter came to Newcastle at the suggestion of his POW mate, Tom Brereton to apply for a position at the Royal Newcastle Hospital. This proved to be the turning point in his life. From this vantage point he could look back and see very clearly the forces that had shaped him. On the other hand, he could not have foreseen how, from this time on, he would be shaping his own future and the medical and academic future of the Hunter.

He could not have seen that he was joining RNH at a time when its leader, Dr Chris McCaffrey was making radical changes to RNH in a drive to make this hospital one of the best in Australia; this proved to be, in Peter's opinion the most creative, innovative and productive period of his life.

In 1947 Peter could not have foreseen that as the first person to be appointed as Clinical Pathologist and the first Director of the Blood Bank he would be given greater powers to define the relationship of the clinical pathologist in the hospital and the role of the Blood Bank. He could not have known that he would set up his own private practice which, when he was joined by Roger Hampson, would become famous as the Hendry and Hampson Pathology Services and lay the foundation for Pathology services in the Hunter.

He could not have foreseen that he would become President of the World Association of the Societies of Pathology (1972-75) and that this organisation would eventually judge him to be worthy of the Gold Cane award, one of the most prestigious awards in World Health, to be presented at a world conference in Japan by the Crown Prince of Japan (1983). It was in fact at this presentation that, according to a Newcastle Herald report, he delivered a memorable speech that began: ' I thank our hosts for their generous welcome. Your hospitality has certainly improved since I was last a guest of Japan.'

He could also not have foreseen the enormous role he would play at the University of Newcastle, starting with his part in the campaign to establish a University of Newcastle and in that context, a Faculty of Medicine. The Faculty would remain his main focus - place where he made lifelong friendships with many of the 'founding fathers' like Professor Geoffrey Kellerman AO and Professor Nicholas Saunders AO. He also made enormous contributions to Edwards Hall and Evatt House, 2NUR and our on campus childcare centres. He would go on to become the University's longest serving member of University Council and Council's longest serving Deputy Chancellor. His contribution was honoured with the prestigious Honorary degrees of Doctor of Medicine (1988) and Doctor of the University (1998).

The University was also enriched by the generous donation of rare and unique artefacts by Peter’s wife Senta Taft-Hendry which have been housed since 2011 in the Senta Taft-Hendry Museum on our Callaghan campus.

It will come as no surprise that in 1985 he was awarded the Order of Australia for services to his Country, Medicine, Education and to his Community. And yet, although many honours came his way he did not seek them. He was a genuine hero although he had no aspiration to heroism. And while his achievements were great his humility prevailed; as did his love of humour. He was a gentleman and a gentle man who, when necessary, could show great strength and courage; he was the leader who led from the centre. Finally, of all the values he cherished and practised, loyalty stood at their heart - loyalty to his principles, to his family, to his mates, to his colleagues, and to his country.

I said at the beginning that Peter is for me the model of what it means to be a genuine human being and a genuine Australian. By this, I mean that Peter lived in two worlds - as a global citizen he was a member of the world community, by birth he was a citizen of Australia. With regard to the former he demonstrated this in his capacity to care about, and relate to, all people, regardless of creed, colour, culture or country. The fact that he could go to Japan for the World Congress in 1983 shows an extraordinary spirit of generosity in view of his experience in Changi and the Burma railway; also in view of the hostile attitude that prevailed among many Australians for several years after the war. The fact that after all he suffered, he never, to my knowledge, spoke in derogatory or demeaning terms about his Japanese or Korean guards; this speaks volumes about his capacity to understand and forgive. When he talked of inhumanity, it was man's inhumanity to man; and when he talked about courage and inspiration it was about the spirit of man.

The really wonderful thing about Peter is that in his character, perspective and philosophy he united both worlds. That is why he is a model for all of us.

I believe it is fair to say that between 1947 – 2017 Peter helped shape the future which became our inheritance at the University and across Newcastle. When we look at Newcastle in the 1950-2000 period we see a period which parallels the period in which we are now living- a time of innovation, change, technological revolution and growth. At the very core of both periods is the University of Newcastle; in the first period it is an emerging force and in the second period, our time, it is the force that is shaping the future of Newcastle and the Hunter. The fact that in 2017 the Royal Newcastle Hospital Heritage committee, of which by some strange fluke of fortune I am Chair, initiated a new Ph.D scholarship program, inspired by Dr Peter Hendry, shows how Peter strode, like a Colossus, between those two periods.

A few years ago Peter was invited to an interview by Lindy Burns at the ABC studio. Halfway through the talk Peter was asked to provide a favourite piece of music. He chose the second movement of Beethoven's 'Emperor' Concerto. As the music began, he leant back and closed his eyes. Before long tears were streaming down his face. At the end Lindy asked him where he went. 'Back to a bamboo hut in Changi around the table with the best mates I ever made.' Then he added, 'Lindy, you should know that when we were in Changi we used this music to take us home to our families and friends. The difference today is that the music is so clear. In Changi we played our records on a gramophone using a hand-made bamboo stylus.

I like to think that through this music Peter is reconnecting with his father, his family and friends and that in a very special way we can connect with him.

Adapted from the eulogy in honour of Dr Peter Hendry, delivered by Dr Bernie Curran at Christchurch Cathedral, 3 October 2017.