Firkin, Barry George

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BSc (Med) 1952 MB BS 1953

Barry George Firkin, Haematologist, Educator and Medical Historian, was the foundation President of the Australian Society for Medical Research in 1961. He performed the first successful bone marrow transplant in the world in 1967 and was Foundation Professor of Monash University Clinical School at the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne from 1969 to 1991.

Born in Newcastle, NSW in 1930, Barry enrolled in Medicine, graduating with honours in 1954. After a year as Resident Medical Officer at Sydney Hospital, he was advised to join the Clinical Research Unit at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, marking the beginning of his interest in clinical haematology and bleeding disorders. According to a long term colleague, at that time:

Barry had to make a choice between a career in Medicine or golf. He was a skilled golfer with a rapidly improving handicap; a successful career in golf was within his reach. His love of Medicine, however, won on the day. Although he had no regrets, he often wondered what could have happened had golf won the day.[1]

From 1958 to 1960, Barry worked with Carl Moore and his team at Washington University. Apparently, this confirmed Barry’s own passion for haematology as he worked alongside someone he considered “the world’s best haematologist”. He emerged from this experience a strong advocate that research began with the patient at the bedside, to be followed with specific experiments in the laboratory to resolve the questions posed before returning to the patient with answers.

In 1961, he returned to Sydney to become Director of the Clinical Research Department at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, where he made his “first major scientific breakthrough describing different enzyme patterns in patients with orotic aciduria”. A few years later, he performed the first successful bone marrow transplant in the world: from one twin sister to the other, a patient with aplastic anaemia. In that same year, inspired by his experiences in the USA, he became a driving force in the establishment of the Australian Society for Medical Research, also becoming their foundation President.

In 1969, Barry accepted the position of Foundation Professor of the Monash University Clinical School at the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne, Victoria. In that capacity, he continued his clinical research and directed the teaching of the academic department. He also maintained his position of In-patient Physician and treated patients with haematological problems. Colleague Hatem Salem recalls:

Soon after moving to his new position, he made, what I would regard, his most significant contribution to haematology. His description that Ristocetin caused platelet clumping and that the process was dependent on the presence of normal plasma and not plasma from a patient with von Willebrand disease was the key to our understanding of the biology and biochemistry of von Willebrand factor. In 1968, when Barry made this observation, Ristocetin was no longer in clinical use because of the frequent development of thrombocytopenia in people who received this antibiotic. Barry’s intuition and lateral thinking was the driving force behind trying to identify the mechanism by which the drug caused thrombocytopenia. This observation facilitated the development of an assay for von Willebrand factor (the ristocetin cofactor assay) that we continue to use today.

Barry maintained both of these positions until 1991, remaining dedicated to developing Haematology in Australia and being active in the International haematology arena. He played significant roles in the activities of the International Society of Hemostasis and Thrombosis, and in the International Society of Haematology. He was Councillor to the International Society of Haematology and a Senior Member of the Scientific Advisory Council of the International Society of Haemostasis and Thrombosis. In recognition of his contributions, he was made the first Life Member of the Australian Society for Medical Research in 1984.

His love of medicine and history also led Barry to become a member of the Victorian branch of the Australasian Medical Associations’ Society of History (later to become the Medical History Society of Victoria) in 1976, and in 1988, he joined the American Association for the History of Medicine. In 1990, he was a Founding Member of the Australian Society for Medical History. According to fellow medical historian Di Tibbits, Barry’s major contribution to medical history was his book Dictionary of Medical Eponyms (1987), co-authored with Judith Whitworth. Di says:

The book sets out to list the eponyms used in internal medicine in Australia and the reader is soon alerted to the problems of naming medical conditions/items after people. Most eponyms listed are attributed to the person or persons who first described the item, although for many more recent eponyms the name of the patient first described with the particular disorder has been used… This book will remain as a testament to Barry Firkin’s commitment to medicine and to medical history.[1]

In 1991, Barry became Professor of Medicine at Monash Medical School and Box Hill Hospital, Victoria. On his retirement, in 1995, he was made Emeritus Professor of Medicine at Monash University, Melbourne.

Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) Firkin, Barry George. Faculty of Medicine Online Museum and Archive, University of Sydney.

An alternate version appears in: Mellor, L. 150 Years, 150 Firsts: The People of the Faculty of Medicine (2006) Sydney, Sydney University Press.