Owen, Earl Ronald

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Earl Owen has been a world pioneer in microsurgery, designing the first microscopic tools for surgery and founded the International Microsurgical Society in 1969 and was also an inaugural member of the Transplantation Society. He was the first to replant an index finger successfully in 1970 and performed the first successful micro-reversal of a vasectomy in 1971, and the first successful micro-reversal of a woman’s tubal sterilisation in 1972. His most famous operation, however, was when he organised and performed the world’s first successful hand transplantation in 1998 (in France). This was followed in 2000 with the first double hands transplantation. Most recently, he has trained and led the team of surgeons who have carried out the world’s first facial transplant in the world.

Earl comes from “a large medical family on both sides” who have “graduated from the University of Sydney in an unbroken presence since 1915”.[1] Earl was a child musical prodigy and says that his “thorough surgical training in Surgery… followed on from [his] intense piano training to be a concert pianist while schooling”. He gave up a career as a Concert Pianist to follow in the footsteps of his family and study medicine. Graduating in 1958, Earl completed his internship at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital (RPAH), spent a year as Senior Surgical Resident at the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne, and then returned to RPAH as Thoracic Surgery Registrar. Travelling to London, he worked at St George, the Hammersmith Hospital, the Oxford Plastic Surgery Unit and the Hospital for Sick Children. Earl tells of how he became a microsurgeon:

My motivation for pioneering Microsurgery (designing the Zeiss Motorised Operating Double Microscope, as well as the Microinstruments and then the techniques), was to save the lives of premature infants with severe congenital abnormalities. These developed skills were noted by early transplantation immunologists whom I joined in London experiments to obtain effective immunosuppressives, and where I developed small animal organ transplant techniques to this end in the 1960s.[1]

In 1968 he returned to Sydney and became Assistant Children’s Surgeon at the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children and in 1971, the Senior Staff Children’s Surgeon at Prince of Wales Hospital. In 1969 he held the first ever Demonstration Hands On Workshop in the Department of Surgery at the University of Sydney for all the Australian universities surgical staff. He has repeated this workshop annually. In 1970, he replanted “a totally amputated index finger in a two-year-old child… and this was the start of replantation surgery in Australia”. Since 1970, he has been the Head of Sydney Microsurgery Service and since 1973, the Medical Director of the Microsearch Foundation of Australia, an official charity Surgical Research Institute. He remains passionate about his work and says:

I love doing it. It’s meticulous and it brings me in contact with the Almighty, because I see living tissues in close-up. Looking down a microscope underneath the skin is just like looking at a coral reef, it’s so full of colour and activity. You do a vasectomy reversal, or a facial nerve graft, and it sounds like there should be blood and gore, but there’s none because we can see everything under the microscope, even the tiniest capillaries, and so avoid cutting anything that would cause bleeding. It’s in terrific colour, it’s three-dimensional and you’re sculpting some person’s new personality if you’re reconstructing. I’m the luckiest surgeon that ever lived. Surgeons usually just take things out. All I do is put things back.[1]

Since the mid-1990s, Earl has been pioneering new techniques for suture-less laser surgery. As he recounts:

[W]hen you put a micro-suture into tissue, the tissue shrinks away from it… damaging tiny little arteries or nerves. When we put three stitches into a bundle of nerve fibres, we destroy at least 25 per cent of the available axonal material. I wanted to find a way we could avoid using sutures in surgery, and so preserve vital tissue.

Earl has been the recipient of several international honours and awards including the Medal of University of Uppsala, in 1971, 1972 and 1975 for introducing and teaching microsurgery in Sweden; the Queen’s Birthday Jubilee Medal awarded by the Queen for outstanding contributions to surgery in 1977; and the Gold Medal Microsurgeon of the Year Award at the World Microsurgery Congress, USA in 1978. He was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1980, for his services to Medicine and particularly for his pioneering work in Microsurgery; he was given the Gold Medal and Freedom of the City of Lyon for introducing Microsurgery to France in 1982 (he received this again in 2002); he received the Advance Australia Medal in 1984 (this was the first time it was ever given to a surgeon), and he received the Grand Gold Medal at the World Congress of Surgery in Milan in 1990. He has had over 300 scientific papers published.

Earl has held over 200 visiting professorships in 87 countries and currently holds multiple professorships with the Royal College of Surgeons in England; Macquarie University; the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, Beijing; and the Second Medical University of Shanghai. Concurrently he remains a practicing microsurgeon at various private Sydney hospitals. His French team, headed by Professor Dubernard, have recently carried out the world’s first face transplant.

Throughout his medical work, Earl has retained a career in music. He has lectured in the Music Department of the University of Sydney and to all of Australia’s (and many overseas) Symphony Orchestras. Since the 1970s he has had a Musicians Medical Clinic in Sydney, and is now Director of the International Society for the Study of Tension in Performance Institute of Performing Arts Medicine in London. Earl not only designed medical instruments, implements and surgical furniture, but also designed all of the chairs in each of the auditoriums of the Sydney Opera House.

Earl lives between London, Lyon and Sydney.

Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) Owen, Earl Ronald. 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.