Sands, John Robert

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John Sands was integral to the development of the renal unit at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and the earliest renal transplantation program in the City of Sydney.[1]

Graduating from the University of Sydney in September 1941, John served as a junior Resident at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital (RPAH). By the end of 1942, he had enlisted in the AIF, and served the remainder of the war in the Pacific area of operations. Following the war, he returned to residency at RPAH for a refresher period. Announcing his intention to do medicine, he was promptly assigned to the orthopaedics ward. Six months later he was a Member of the College.

There followed several years in general practice, and in 1955 he was appointed Honorary Assistant Physician to RPAH. In 1963, he became what was then termed a Senior Physician in charge of a general medical unit. His particular interest was in renal medicine, and he played a critical role in fostering and developing the renal unit and the transplantation program in the city of Sydney. Characteristic of the man was that once the program and unit were firmly established and there were others trained to the appropriate degree, he stepped down from the Directorship of the unit. But his service to the Hospital amounted to much more than that mentioned above. He served on innumerable committees, and played a major role in the reorganisation of the division of medicine in the 1970s. He was greatly respected and sought after as a teacher, both at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels.

Outside the Hospital his contributions were no less significant. In his earlier years he served on the committee of the Eastern Suburbs Medical Association and became its Chairman. For some years he was a Councillor of the Medical Defence Union. But it is in his activities within the College that he made his greatest contributions to medicine within this country. Elected as a Member Councillor in 1958, he was created a Fellow of the College in 1960 and was appointed Assistant Honorary Treasurer. In 1962, he became Honorary Treasurer, a post he held until 1968. His financial expertise was of inestimable value to the College at that time, which included the March of Medicine Appeal. From 1968 to 1974 he continued as an elected Councillor of the College, and finally from 1974 to 1976 as Vice President. However, during these very active and creative years, perhaps the greatest contribution of all to the College, in conjunction with Professor Bryan Hudson, was the total reorganisation of the College training program for young physicians. Others were, of course, involved but these two were the driving force, an effort which amongst other things required the visiting of every teaching hospital in the country.

In addition, for many years he was active in business on the board of John Sands Limited from the age of 25 years and elected to the chair in 1965, following the death of his father. The company thrived, a performance noted by others, and in 1974 he was invited to join the Board of the Bank of New South Wales. His performance in the business world was extraordinary, greatly valued by others, and, as Sir Robert Norman stated in his peroration at the memorial service at St Stephen’s Church on 1 February 1980, the business community of the city lost a fine man of outstanding ability.

What has been detailed so far outlines the bare bones of a remarkable career of a remarkable man. But it gives little colour to the personality, little indication of the love, affection and respect accorded him by his innumerable friends, colleagues and patients. He had a rapier-like wit, never malicious, and a wonderful sense of the ridiculous. These attributes thrived in a mind that was avaricious for knowledge, fertilised by an extraordinary breadth and depth of extracurricular reading. A lovely story concerns a period of service in a field ambulance during the war, an experience shared with his brother-in-law, N E Brand of Lismore. When they were stationed at Oro Bay in the North of New Guinea, the authorities at base finally realised that a particular serviceman had remained, for an unusually long time at the field ambulance, suffering a remarkable number of relapses of malaria. It emerged that the particular serviceman had been a diver in civilian life, that there was a sunken freighter in the harbour, whose cargo included a considerable quantity of liquor, and that the former diver’s skill kept himself, his companions, and the two medical officers supplied with sustenance.

John Sands loved the young and was constantly probing and striving to improve their training and their opportunities in medicine. And quite apart from formal avenues, many was the time when a quiet word here, or a helping hand there, often unbeknown to the recipient, influenced a career. Says J M Greenaway, “it was my privilege to propose his health at the dinner given him by the division of medicine of the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital on his retirement from the active staff in 1978. In that speech I quoted from Mark Anthony’s eulogy of Brutus:

His life was gentle and the elements so mix’d in him that nature might stand up and say to all the world ‘This was a man!’

In the manner of passing I found not one tittle of evidence to alter my opinion.”

Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) Sands, John Robert. 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.