University of Otago Otago Medical School Alumni Association

Obituary - Associate Professor John Borrie

American author, poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote: "To know even one life has breathed easier because you lived - this is to have succeeded". This was one of John Borrie's favourite quotes, quite fitting when it is considered the Port Chalmers-born thoracic surgeon put breath back into the lungs and lives of hundreds of New Zealanders.

Emeritus Professor John Borrie

Emeritus Professor John Borrie

Prof Borrie was a former lecturer of cardiothoracic surgery at the  University of Otago. He founded the postgraduate course for surgical specialists in basic medical sciences in 1957, and carried out pioneering research on lung cancer and transplantation. Louise Borrie said it was always a mystery as to why her  father was born without a middle name, but he compensated for this by being known both professionally and affectionately as "Prof".

"Although his chosen profession was that of a thoracic surgeon, he heralded from the master class, a teacher, mentor, confidant and best friend at the university of life, who touched everyone he encountered in a very special way." Prof Borrie was born on January 22, 1915, to Dr William Henry and Helen Inglis Pettigrew Borrie. He and his sisters Annette and Helen, and brother Alex, were raised at the end of the Victorian era in a reasonably strict Presbyterian household which included a maid and a cook.

In 1926, his family moved to Dunedin to live at 226 High St and he attended High Street Primary School. His intellect was evident from an early age and in 1927 he was  named Dux. He went on to study at John McGlashan College where he was a keen sportsman, representing the college at cross-country running.

In 1932, he was head prefect at McGlashan and graduated proxime accessit . At Otago University he elected to follow in his father's footsteps and studied medicine. Prof Borrie's son, Philip, said that during his university holidays, John Borrie spent a considerable amount of time in Fiordland walking some of the tracks and climbing in the mountain ranges. Later, in 1934, he spent a summer holiday touring the whole of the North Island with a friend, John Ross, in a Model T Ford. Never one to be left out of the entertainment, he was also a member of the university capping concert sextet from 1936 to 1938.

As a fifth-year medical student in 1937, he had a four-week period as a locum GP at Whataroa on the West Coast, where he attended to patients up and down the coast. While there, he happened to meet and treat Dorothy Theomin, who became a life-long friend. "As a locum, he was required to fly in a two-seater plane from Franz Josef and land on the beach at Bruce Bay to treat some of the road workers who were building the Haast Pass road." Philip said.

When he graduated from the Otago Medical School, he won the Bachelor Medal for obstetrics and gynaecology. He then worked as a house surgeon at Dunedin Hospital for the next two years. "He recounted stories of how, as a house surgeon, he would perform the cross-match for blood, drain 400ml of blood from a donor into a sterilised stainless steel container and then transfuse it into the recipient through the standard sterilised red rubber hosing. It is interesting to note that penicillin was only commercially available in 1941."

In September 1939, Prof Borrie was sent to the Middle East as a captain in the New Zealand Army Medical Corps. He was later transferred to Greece, where he was captured by the Germans in April 1941. For nearly a month, he was transported with other POWs in railway wagons northwest into central Europe, where he then spent more than four years as a doctor in a POW camp.

Through much adversity, Prof Borrie learnt to improvise and make do, often challenging the Germans until he got a satisfactory resolution, Philip said. "It was there that he learnt one of his favourite sayings - nein ist nein antwort - 'no is no answer'. It was only because of the Red Cross, his parents and people like Dorothy Theomin, who sent food parcels, that he and many others managed to survive." During this time he studied for the part 1 surgical examination and on his release to London, he was able to sit it in the shortest possible time and then progress to the part 2 examination, in May 1946. At this time he was awarded an MBE for distinguished service to Allied POWs during the war. He was also awarded a 1939-45 Star, Africa Star and New Zealand War Service Medal. In 1949, he asked Helen Merrifield to be his wife and soon after, they were married.

Prof Borrie became the Royal College of Surgeons Hunterian Professor in 1951 and only the second New Zealander to receive the Royal College of Surgeons Jacksonian Prize for research into carcinoma of the stomach, in 1952. Soon, he decided to return to New Zealand to take a position at the Green Lane Cardiothoracic Unit and within a year, he had moved to Dunedin to set up the Southern Regional Thoracic Surgery Unit, providing clinics for Dunedin, Oamaru, Balclutha, Gore, Invercargill and Central Otago.   When possible, Louise said, the whole family would accompany Prof Borrie on his patient follow-up clinics in Southland and Central Otago.

"We didn't always stay in motels, Dad having arranged with a farmer friend to pitch a tent on his land or by the Pomahaka River. I have this enduring memory of my father, emerging from the tent dressed in a two-piece black suit, with white handkerchief in his left breast pocket, white shirt and College of Surgeons tie, driving off in the trusty Holden station wagon to see his patients."  Soon after his return to Dunedin, Prof Borrie also became senior lecturer and then later, associate professor of cardiothoracic surgery at the university. In 1957, he founded the postgraduate course for specialists in basic medical sciences, which gained an international reputation. In 1977, he was awarded the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons Medal for distinguished services to postgraduate education.

His retirement in 1980 was considered a great loss to the medical profession. Prof Borrie's friends and colleagues, John Heslop and Emeritus Prof Barbara Heslop, acknowledged the debt Dunedin owed him for getting postgraduate education started. "We want everyone to know that the postgraduate course that he started for the small handful of New Zealand surgical trainees in 1957 will have been running for 50 years at the end of this year. It is currently preparing to receive 90 Australian and New Zealand surgical trainees for this year's offering in September. These young people will bring the total to well over 1700 since the 1990s." On retirement from the Dunedin School of Medicine, Prof Borrie was made the faculty of medicine's honorary curator of historic medical artefacts. The display was later named the John Borrie History Hall.

Louise said her father could be best described via a series of "Johnisms" and some very precious memories. A typical Johnism was, "time and tide wait for no-one". He had the time-management and multi-tasking skills which meant he could live by the philosophy. "A typical day would find him rising early at Newington, our home, then to Wakari Hospital. Between cases, he would conduct a window weather report and phone mum saying, 'Helen dear, there's a southerly coming in. It's time to take the washing off the line'."

"Having completed surgery and grand rounds, he would likely proceed to Dunedin Hospital to lecture postgraduate and undergraduate medical students and nursing students, conduct out-patient clinics, and check on his small flock of experimental sheep in the animal block."  At home after dinner, Prof Borrie would mark student papers, then write some of his own for lectures and medical journals, she said.

He would also work on drafts of his books and booklets, which showed his broad range of interests and expertise. They included: Lung Cancer Surgery and Survival (1964); Emergencies in Thoracic Surgery (1958); Despite Captivity - A Doctor's Life as German POW (1974); Art and Observables in the Otago Medical School; Handbook - Dunedin Public Art Gallery (1964); Graduate's Travel Guide; and Olveston, Dunedin (1968). He also contributed to many papers on thoracic surgery, experimental surgery, review articles, general surgery, military medicine and historical articles.

Louise said her father was considered a man before his time at the family's Waitati holiday home: "He was a recycling pioneer, providing a home for us in the form of a tram car and two trailers, aptly named The Terminus, being the last property at the end of the road."  Another Johnism was "save it for tomorrow". Louise said it could mean anything from turning off electric lights and heaters to saving food, firewood, gifts, and coins. "It all stemmed directly from his experience of the Great Depression, as a prisoner of war, post-war rationing and subsequent recessions."  When Prof Borrie had spare time, Louise said he enjoyed reading - mainly non fiction and classics - and sewing tapestries, which were evident in the seats of chairs, piano stools and foot stools. He also loved painting landscape oils, and members of his close family had examples of his masterpieces.

"Prior to his deafness, he played the piano, listened to classical, opera and musical theatre music, both at home and at concerts." On occasions, we would hear spontaneous arias or hymns issuing forth from around the house or garage during a down-sizing or 'tidy up' - another Johnism."  During retirement, Prof Borrie was also a member of many committees, including the Dunedin Public Art Gallery (president and life member), the Otago Museum Committee and the Friends of Olveston.

He died, at age 91, on August 1, 2006 and is survived by his wife and sons, Prof Michael Borrie (Ontario, Canada), Dr Philip Borrie and daughter Louise Borrie.

Otago Daily Times
12 August 2006