David More O’Sullivan OAM (MBBS 1953)


David O’Sullivan, who died in Ballarat on 5 April 2011, will be remembered for his commitment to the community of that city through his work as a physician and his role in the development of its working gold museum, Sovereign Hill.

The youngest of three boys born to Mitchell Henry O’Sullivan, a Casterton general practitioner, and his wife Margaret, David began his education at Casterton Primary School and later boarded at Brighton Grammar in Melbourne, where he excelled in his studies and played both football and cricket. Following his father’s profession, David undertook medical trainingat the University of Melbourne but his studies were interrupted when he contracted tuberculosis of the spine in his final year. He required a spinal fusion and spent four years in treatment and recovery, much of it in a plaster cast.

While convalescing at the Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital, David met his future wife, Frances Read, then a pupil nurse on rotation from the Melbourne Hospital. He was also introduced to the joys of medical history, by University of Melbourne anatomy professor Ken Russell, who brought papers and texts to the bed-bound medical student. With only minimal movement possible over his long hospitalisation, David developed not only a passion for reading but a great capacity to focus his thinking. Harvey Cushing’s two volume text The Life of Sir William Osler had a profound effect, prompting David to collect most of Osler’s writings. He found himself in agreement with Osler – that reading widely made the physician a better practitioner.

After graduation, David worked at the Royal Melbourne and Royal Children’s Hospitals. In 1956 he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study cardiology at the Pratt Diagnostic Clinic– New England Centre Hospital in Boston, now known as Tuft’s. This was followed by appointments at London’s Hammersmith Hospital, the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosciences Queen Square, and at Edinburgh’s Royal Infirmary. In 1959 he obtained his FRCP (Edinburgh). Back in Australia, David practised as a physician in Ballarat from 1960 until 1992, initially in paediatrics, and later in adult medicine.

With his friends, Bryan Gandevia and Frank Forster, David was pivotal in re-forming the Medical History Section of the British Medical Association’s Victorian Branch. During his 20 years as honorary curator of the AMA’s Library and Museum, he travelled every week from Ballarat to Melbourne to fulfil this role, with his distant cousin, Ann Tovell, providing paid assistance. What remains of the former AMA museum collection is now housed at the University of Melbourne’s Brownless Biomedical Library.

Active in the Ballarat community, David was a member of the local National Trust and served as its president. He was one of a group of Ballarat residents who, in 1969, laid the plans for a gold museum called ‘Sovereign Hill’. He subsequently served as a Sovereign Hill board member for more than 35 years, his wide-ranging support of this working museum recognised in two ways: Sovereign Hill’s reference library bears his name and in 1991 he was awarded an OAM for his commitment to community history.

After retirement David ran his ‘beloved’ Mafeking Farm, nestled in the shadow of the Grampians in Western Victoria, raising sheep and pursuing his interests in history and collecting. He was enormously generous with medical colleagues and historians of health history and a gracious host. Enthusiastic about useful technology, he was one of the first people in Australia to use a CPAP machine for sleep apnoea after suffering a series of strokes. In later years, with his movement restricted by peripheral vascular disease, David traversed Mafeking Farm on a quad bike.

In a fitting tribute to this man of history, David O’Sullivan was carried to his final resting place in Ballarat by Sovereign Hill’s magnificent nineteenth century hearse, its horses adorned with feather plumes. It was a transport plan that David thought might be ‘a bit of fun’. David is survived by his wife Fran and their four children.

Madonna Grehan, Honorary Fellow, Nursing, Melbourne School of Health Sciences

Dr David Sullivan