Hennessy, William Bertrand

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William (Bill) Hennessy was one of the founding members of the Gastroenterology Unit at St Vincent’s Hospital in 1979. Bill Hennessy was born in Gulong, NSW in 1925. After he graduated MB BS from the University of Sydney in 1950, Bill worked as a Junior and Senior Medical Officer at St Vincent’s Hospital in 1950 and 51, becoming Deputy Medical Superintendent in 1952. He travelled to London and after obtaining the MRCP in 1954 and MRACP in 1956, trained in gastroenterology and tropical medicine.

In 1957, Bill returned to Australia with a Herman Taylor gastroscope and became one of the founding members of the Gastroenterology Unit at St Vincent’s. Three years later, he was appointed Honorary Relieving Assistant Physician, then Honorary Assistant Physician in 1970, and Physician from 1970 to 1987. During this time, he introduced the Wood Suction Gastric Biopsy Tube to St Vincent’s and carried out studies of gastritis in collaboration with John Garvan.[1]

Concurrently, Bill completed his DTM&H in 1962, thereafter being appointed Research Medical Officer at the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine at the University of Sydney. Through the School, Edward Ford and Frederick Clements invited him to continue a research project into the cause of goitre in parts of New Guinea where it was known to be highly endemic. Bill proved the hypothesis, originally put forward by Stanley McCullagh, that this type of goitre was for the most part due to iodine deficiency and could be prevented by injection of iodised oil. In 1964, he was appointed Physician to the Department of Tropical Medicine at St Vincent’s, a role he continued until 1967. Although he continued to be interested in research in tropical medicine, Bill resigned in order to focus on gastroenterology, his major specialty. He established a weekly ‘gastro-clinico-pathological conference’, attended by physicians, surgeons, pathologists, registrars and RMOs who came together to discuss patient management. Throughout the 1960s, he was an active member of the Gastroenterological Society of Australia.

Bill was a prime mover in the establishment of the Alcoholism Clinic at St Vincent’s in 1971. Initially, he operated the clinic on a weekly basis in conjunction with the Senior Social Worker. By 1976, almost 1000 new patients had attended the clinic which expanded incrementally, also opening a detoxification centre in 1981. Professor John Hickie gives the following account:

Gorman House, at 7 Ice Street, a single two-bedroom terrace, was opened as an alcohol detoxification unit. This was to reduce dramatically the number of hospital admissions for alcoholism and to effect the social and medical management of the disorder. It was part of a more comprehensive alcohol service which included an assessment centre, a 24-hour telephone counselling service, a low cost detoxification centre, and a drug monitoring facility in the Department of Clinical Pharmacology.[1]

Bill was also one of the founding members of the Bruce Hall Gastroenterology Unit, the formation of which led to a more integrated management of gastrointestinal problems by physicians and surgeons. The Unit also provided a suitable locus for amalgamated undergraduate and postgraduate teaching of gastroenterology and vocational registrar training. Bill was a member of the Citizen Military Forces with the rank of Major. He was Honorary Physician at Lewisham Hospital, and part of a team studying leprosy and malaria in the New Guinea Highlands. In 1975, he was reappointed Lecturer in Clinical Tropical Medicine at the Commonwealth Institute of Health, a role which involved lecturing undergraduate and postgraduate students as well as members of the Royal Australian Army Medical Corps.

He was Chairman of the Department of Gastroenterology on two occasions and Chairman of the Medical Board from 1981 to 1982. Bill retired from St Vincent’s in 1987 but continued in private practice in a very successful day-procedure endoscopic centre in Darlinghurst, which was moved to St Vincent’s Clinic when the latter opened in 1990. He retired from clinical practice at the end of 1994.

Bill always managed to convey his enthusiasm for his work, such that one of his students wrote: “he introduced students and residents to the many and varied pleasures of endoscopy. One never realises the delights of that inner sanctum until one gazes fervently down the piece of apparatus he wields so expertly.”

Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) Hennessy, William Bertrand. 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.