Goulston, Eric

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MB BS 1928

Eric Goulston pioneered a surgical procedure to relieve congenital tracheoesophageal fistula and become the inaugural Professor of Surgery at Haile Selassie University in Addis Ababa in the late 1960s.[1]

Eric Goulston won an exhibition in medicine at the University of Sydney, graduating in 1928. His postgraduate study was broad, with residencies at Sydney Hospital, Prince Henry and the Children’s Hospital, Camperdown, before travelling to London as a ship’s doctor.

He spent two years at St John’s Hospital, Lewisham, widening his surgical experience and obtaining the Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland and later the Fellowship of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons.

Eric’s service in World War II was memorable. Married with two young children, he enlisted in the 2nd AIF as a surgeon in the 2/5th Australian General Hospital (AGH), serving in the Middle East, Greece and Crete. Forced to retreat by the Germans, the hospital staff came under air attack in Greece and after the evacuation to Crete. They were eventually taken back to Alexandria by ship.

The 2/5th AGH was then moved to Asmara, in Eritrea. Eric was co-opted to act as sole medical officer to a patriot force of some 500 tribesmen under Major Shepherd, a former professor of English at Cairo University. This group was part of the Wingate base of Abyssinian guerilla patriots in the south involved in a campaign to recapture Gondar from the Italians.

Eric’s diary recalls the dates of the exercise: 8 November to 6 December 1941. He walked or rode mules through rough mountain country and after many adventures took part in the liberation of Gondar. For this work he was awarded the Gondar Cross personally by Haile Selassie. He then rejoined his unit, which was moved to Palestine.

When John Curtin brought troops back to Australia, Eric was transferred to the 2/11th Australian CCS and served in Papua New Guinea. His last post was as officer commanding the Australian hospital ship Manunda. When the Japanese surrendered, the Manunda was the first Australian ship to enter Singapore Harbour since 1941. Eric witnessed the formal surrender ceremony of the Japanese taken by Louis Mountbatten, then the ship brought back many wounded and sick Australians who had been Japanese prisoners of war.

Re-entering civilian life, he served as surgeon on the honorary staff of two University of Sydney teaching hospitals, Royal North Shore and the Royal Alexandria Hospital for Children, for 30 years. He pioneered an operation to relieve congenital tracheoesophageal fistula, a connection between the windpipe and the gullet at birth.

His skills covered all forms of surgery except neurosurgery; he was a relaxed, confident and very experienced operator who kept theatre sisters amused with stories and comments. He was a gifted teacher to generations of medical students at the University of Sydney and also developed a large private consultancy practice. In the late 1960s, when his distinguished public hospital surgical career ended at the age of 60, he accepted the offer to become the inaugural professor of surgery at Haile Selassie University in Addis Ababa. Accompanied by his wife and daughter, he spent the next three years operating and teaching students there.

Ethiopian students, who had previously trained in Lebanon, were recalled and the medical school began producing a stream of intelligent and capable young doctors. At that time the mix of feudal and modern society was fascinating: cattle had the right of way in traffic and the installation of parking meters was a dismal failure because of looting.

Eric revisited Addis Ababa 15 years later to lecture. He found life there profoundly different, with a Marxist regime in power, media and mail censorship, restricted freedom of speech and movement, university leaders murdered and the royal family imprisoned without trial.

Eric retained a close interest in Ethiopian and Eritrean affairs. His last visit to the Asmara General Hospital was in May 1996, at the age of 90, when he arranged for a young Eritrean surgeon to learn urological surgery at St Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney. After leaving Addis Ababa he joined an Australian civilian surgical team in Vietnam for six months, working at Bien Hoa, a hospital of 100 surgical beds, before returning home.

Each December for the next five years he managed surgical locums in Darwin, Alice Springs, Burnie and Madang and Rabaul, Papua New Guinea.When his operating days ended he acted as chief medical officer to the NSW Workers Compensation Commission from 1981 to 1990, and was also a medico-legal consultant.

He was the last survivor of his graduate medical year and the last member of the medical staff of the 2/5 Australian General Hospital. He regularly marched with his unit on ANZAC Day; the last occasion was in 2002, when he was 96.

To the end Eric was an adventurer in spirit. Eric Goulston died in March 2006, three weeks after his 100th birthday.

Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) Goulston, Eric. 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.