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12 Jun 2018

Dr Bruce Shepherd AM  1932 - 2018
A giant of medicine

Dr Bruce Shepherd AM was a larger-than-life character with vision, passion and the persistence to achieve the seemingly impossible.

He was such a legendary force in medical politics, that if you spoke of “Bruce” in medical circles, everyone would know exactly who you meant.

Bruce was my friend and mentor and he exerted a pivotal influence on my career.

I first met Bruce in 1981 when I was an intern, newly returned from maternity leave and assigned to a surgery term at Mona Vale Hospital.  Bruce was the senior orthopaedic surgeon for the hospital and he was railing against what he saw as a fundamental threat to the independence of the Australian medical profession, and our ability to maintain clinical excellence and to protect the doctor-patient relationship. This would become a familiar mantra as he led the NSW orthopaedic surgeons in protest against excessive bureaucratic interference in the doctor-patient relationship, and later as President of the AMA (NSW) and then the Federal AMA. Bruce had trained in the UK and he had seen the impact of nationalised health care, and he refused to let it happen here.

He held an unshakable belief in the need for a medical profession independent of government control so that we could serve only our patients and no one else: “Umberima Fides “, he said – always act in the utmost good faith.

By the end of May 1984, when Bruce was President of the Australian Society of Orthopaedic Specialists (ASOS) which he founded, discussions with government failed and some 70 orthopaedic surgeons resigned from their prized honorary positions in public hospitals. Then NSW Premier, Neville Wran, in meeting Bruce said: “Dr Shepherd, you represent the last independent group in our society and as such I move to control you.”

State legislation was introduced threatening that any doctor who stayed resigned would be banned from ever working in a public hospital for seven years. 

This backfired on the Government, causing the protest to spread, as many hundreds of surgeons and anaesthetists joined the protest with resignations rising to 1500. Eventually the NSW Government was forced to find a solution.

That bitter dispute was a turning point for the medical profession, creating a new awareness of the threat of bureaucratic domination of clinical practice.

Bruce never returned to the public system, but beyond his patients he gave an enormous amount of time to nurturing and teaching young trainees and fellows. Indeed, one of his characteristics was always to encourage young people to believe in themselves and to find their own potential.

Bruce became President of the AMA (NSW) in 1987, and served as President of the Federal AMA from 1990 to 1993. 

Dr Brendan Nelson AO was Dr Shepherd’s Vice-President and was later elected as Federal AMA President. Brendan recalls: “More than anything else he gave me confidence in the belief I could make a difference to my profession and my country.”

Bruce was certainly a straight-talker, his wisdom delivered with an often colourful turn of phrase.

In reforming the AMA’s bureaucracy as President, Brendan said he rang Bruce to ask his opinion of a senior staff member about whom he had doubts. Bruce told Brendan:

“You’re right mate. He’s never bled for anything he believes in.
In life you have to surround yourself with people possessed of two qualities.

The first is that they are prepared to bleed for something in which they believe. That you share their cause is less important than being prepared to bleed for something.

The second is to look for people who are overenthusiastic - much better to hose them down twice a day than have to stick ginger up their bums to get them moving.”

Such was the complexity of the man he would lend himself as easily to a liberal social cause as being a poster boy for conservatism.

Some of the more conservative members of the medical profession were surprised when Bruce made it clear that he wanted them to support me to become AMA President. It was irrelevant to him that I was a woman, or that I had a wife, and he told the “doubters” that it shouldn’t matter to them either. He believed in me and that was that.  

Bruce would call me regularly during my AMA presidency to share his views on the issues of the day. But he would never tell me what to say or do. He let me know that he trusted my judgment.

While his public persona is the tough negotiator and fearless protector of the independence of the medical profession, Bruce had a heart of gold.  Bruce’s two adored children Penny and Daniel were born profoundly deaf. Bruce made it his mission to find world’s best practice for teaching deaf children to communicate. Bruce and his late wife Annette travelled to America to study an early intervention method for speech and language, which they brought back to Australia. 

Long before cochlear implants and confronting medical orthodoxy, they gave their all to bring first Penny and then Daniel into the hearing world.

In true Bruce Shepherd style, he saw the bigger picture and established a program in the grounds of Sydney University, which later became known as the Shepherd Centre. This fundamentally transformed the lives of these children and their families.  Now, almost 50 years later, the Shepherd Centre has enabled more than 2000 children with hearing loss to develop the ability to speak and to be able to integrate into the wider community, because Bruce refused to listen to those who said they never would.

Last year, I attended the graduation of children from their pre-school program. These children would now be able to attend regular schools because of the communication intervention they had been able to receive, thanks to the vision and passion and generosity of Dr Bruce Shepherd. You could see on the faces of those children and their proud parents what his legacy has meant to them.

In 1991 Dr Shepherd was awarded an Order of Australia for this work. 

Bruce’s interest in the future of our profession continued to burn bright. Even our conversations over the past year quickly turned from family news to medico-political discussions.

Dr Bruce Shepherd AM passed away, fittingly, on the opening day of AMA National Conference 2018, and on the anniversary of the surgeons’ walkout in 1984.  He would have smiled and made a toast to that timing.

By Prof Kerryn Phelps AM, AMA President 2000-2003

with Dr Brendan Nelson AO, AMA President 1993-1995






Published: 12 Jun 2018