Dr. Gwenifer C.M. Wilson

Dr. Gwenifer C.M. Wilson

It is only fitting to summarize, for such an occasion, the accomplishments and contributions with which Dr. Wilson has been associated that so richly deserve the honor being bestowed on her. She is, first of all, Australian born, one who first saw the light of day in (suitably enough) October 1916, at Broken Hill, New South Wales, Australia. After graduation from the University of Sydney Medical School in 1939, Dr. Wilson started her clinical training at the Balmain Hospital in suburban Sydney . It was there she also started training in anesthesia. Her first teachers included an elderly expert in local anesthesia, Dr. C. Corlette, and a urologist, Dr. Reginald Bridge. Both were particularly adept in, and strong proponents of, regional anesthesia; Dr. Wilson, therefore, getting off to a good start in this area. In 1944, the first anesthesia diploma course in Australia was started at University of Sydney, a course Dr. Wilson entered in 1945. Despite widespread ignorance at that time amongst physicians and laity alike of the importance of anesthesia as a clinical discipline, and despite the multitude of obstacles in medicine confronting women, Dr. Wilson persisted in her dedication to anesthesia and her growing family. She not only became a member of the Australian Society of Anaesthetists, but also became the first woman to gain an Australian Diploma in anesthesia. When, after serving for 12 yr at two suburban hospitals, she was denied promotion because she was a woman, she transferred, in 1956, to Sydney Hospital and to St. George Hospital . There, she served as Honorary Anaesthetist from 1956 to 1968, and there she continues to serve as Honorary Consultant Anesthetist.

It was in 1961 that Dr. Wilson started her study of the history of anesthesia by probing deeply into the fascinating story about how the news of anesthesia got to Australia in 1847. This led her, pari passu, to become an authority in Australian maritime history. She also found, during her review of early Australian medical journals, the first of which appeared in 1846, that the word anesthesia never appeared in any of the early indexes of medical literature. This she compensated for by reading, page by page, every early Australian medical journal, which led to her creation of her own index, later published, of all citations in all those medical journals dealing with anesthesia and anything related to it. The result of all these studies was that she developed a unique wealth of information and a keen insight into the development of anesthesia in the context of much of the rest of the practice of medicine at that time. Eventually and inevitably, of course, she became so involved in the history of anesthesia as to retire from clinical practice. She has presented 42 invited lectures, has published 43 articles on the history of anesthesia (a sample of which being those cited below [1-4] **), and, for many years, provided a striking visual history of anesthesia in the form of a series of pictures of equipment, people, and places appearing on the outside front cover of the Australian anesthesia journal Anaesthesia and Intensive Care. Now, we have the culmination of all her studies and all her work throughout the years with publication of the first volume of her magnum opus, the 690-page One Grand Chain, A History of Anaesthesia in Australia , 1846-1962, [5] with the second volume due in 1997. One is hard pressed to find elsewhere such complete, such clearly expressed, and such well organized accounts of the introduction and development of anesthesia within a single country. Even more hard pressed is one to find a description such as that provided by Dr. Wilson of the relation between the development of anesthesia in Australia and the concurrent medical, scientific, social, political, economic, and maritime events and changes taking place during the same 150-yr span. Anesthesia never developed all by itself in a vacuum. Its development was and is ultimately governed by the society in which it exists. One Grand Chain shows this beautifully. This is the way the grand sweep of the history of medicine–or anesthesia–should be viewed. Not only that, however. Dr. Wilson, in being so thorough, so meticulous, and so complete in reporting all of the Australian anesthesia history, means that future anesthesia historian scholars need not spend tedious hours searching through past literature. All they need is Dr. Wilson’s book as a starting point. It’s all there.

In her career, Dr. Wilson has been afforded many richly deserved honors and has occupied many important positions in anesthesia and related organizations. These include a Doctorate of Medicine postgraduate degree (the equivalent of a Ph.D. in the United States) awarded by the University of Sydney in 1995 for her thesis on the history of the Australian Society of Anaesthetists 1934-1984 and her Bibliography of References to Anesthesia and Related Subjects in Australasian Medical Publications 1846-1962. Her M.D. was the first postgraduate Doctorate of Medicine degree awarded in Australia for medical history. She was a Founding Member of the Faculty of Anaesthetists of The Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (MFARACS) in 1952, and became a Fellow of the Faculty of Anaesthetists, Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (FFARACS) in 1956 and a Fellow of the Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists (FANZ-CA) in 1992.

Dr. Wilson also served as Secretary of the Australian Society of Anaesthetists (1954-56), as a member of the Executive Committee of the Australian Society of Anaesthetists (1951-56), as Honorary Historian of the Faculty of Anaesthetists, Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (1966-92), and as Honorary Historian and then the Historian Emeritus of the Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists. As if all this were not enough, Dr. Wilson served as Postgraduate Lecturer in the history of anaesthesia in the Nuffield Department of Anaesthetics of the University of Sydney from 1962 to 1982.

Dr. Wilson’s career reflects the thoroughness, the scholarship, the meticulousness, and the dedication of time and effort needed to produce definitive studies of the history of anesthesia. She provides us with an example to which we, everywhere, can aspire. We are thankful for the environment in which she worked, an environment with facilities and outlook permitting and even facilitating the development of such scholarly talent. We thank her for her contributions to our specialty in historical fact, as well as for the intellectual and academic example she has set.

Nicholas M. Greene, M.D., F.R.C.A., Professor Emeritus of Anesthesiology, Yale University School of Medicine, 333 Cedar Street, New Haven, Connecticut 06520.

* c/o Laureate of the History of Anesthesia Committee, Wood Library-Museum of Anesthesiology, 520 N. Northwest Highway, Park Ridge, Illinois 60068-2573.

** Wilson GCM: How the good news of anaesthesia was carried across the world. Modern Medicine 1990; May:98-109.

*** Available from Wood Library-Museum (see earlier).


1. Wilson GCM: The tyrant overcome: A review of the history of anaesthesia in Australia . Anaesth Intensive Care 1972; 1:9-26.

2. Wilson G: Faculty of Anaesthetists, Royal Australasian College of Surgeons: Foundation and progress. Med J Aust 1977; 1:738-42.

3. Wilson G: Janet Lindsay Greig: A pioneer. Anaesth Intensive Care 1985; 13:420-8.

4. Wilson G: Benjamin Archer Kent: A South Australian pioneer. Anaesth Intensive Care 1987; 15:451-8.

5. Wilson GMM: One Grand Chain, The History of Anaesthesia in Australia , 1846-1962, Vol. 1. Melbourne, Australia, The Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists, 1996***.