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Australian Academy of Science
Biographical Memoirs of Deceased Fellows

Originally prepared for publication as part of Bright Sparcs by the Australian Science Archives Project.

Sydney Sunderland 1910-1993


By Ian Darian-Smith

This short memoir of Sir Sydney Sunderland is based on autobiographical information assembled by Sir Sydney, on a number of informal discussions the author had with him during the last five years of his life, and on the more accessible public documentation of his many activities associated with the University of Melbourne and the Federal and State Governments. In these notes I am more concerned with providing a picture of the kind of man Sydney Sunderland was, his science, and his contributions to Australian universities and to the community, than with presenting exhaustive detail of his many achievements.

Schooling, Undergraduate and Graduate Studies

Sydney Sunderland was born in Brisbane on the last day of 1910. His father was a journalist and sporting identity in Brisbane and his family provided a strongly supportive environment for their only surviving child, who quickly established himself as an outstanding schoolboy athlete and student. He spent a couple of years at Scotch College, Melbourne, when his father was circulation manager of the recently established Sun newspaper, and then completed his schooling at Brisbane State High School. Sydney Sutherland was awarded an Open Scholarship in 1930 and started a science course at the University of Queensland. Since at that time there was no medical school in the University of Queensland, students wishing to complete a medical course had to enrol at either Sydney or Melbourne. This became possible financially for Sydney Sunderland when, as top student in first year Science, he won the Raff Memorial Scholarship. In 1931 he entered second year medicine in the University of Melbourne, and so began a highly productive association which lasted more than sixty years. Sunderland graduated as top student in medicine in 1935, having 'topped' every other year along the way and been awarded the Exhibition and Dwight Prize in Anatomy, the Jamieson Prize in Clinical Medicine, the Keith Levi Scholarship, and the Fulton Scholarship in Obstetrics and Gynaecology. He also passed the Primary Fellowship Examination of the Royal College of Surgeons (London) a year before graduating.

Quite early, as a medical student, Sydney Sunderland was attracted to research. In this, he was greatly influenced, firstly by the neurologist Leonard Cox, and then by the singularly charismatic professor of anatomy at Melbourne, Frederic Wood Jones, These two senior colleagues guided Sunderland's interests toward neurology and greased the tracks for his career with a breathtaking directness. Immediately on graduation Sunderland was offered a Senior Lectureship in Anatomy, which he accepted. He was simultaneously appointed Assistant Neurologist in Cox's neurological clinic at the Alfred Hospital, and also Assistant to the eminent surgeon, Hugh Trumble, who specialized in neurosurgery at the same hospital. These four remained close colleagues and friends throughout their lives.

In 1937 the ever-restless and controversial Wood Jones returned to England to the chair of anatomy at Manchester. Before leaving Melbourne, however, he arranged Sunderland's appointment as a Demonstrator in the Department of Human Anatomy in Oxford with Le Gros Clark. Le Gros Clark and the young 'colonial' did not warm to each other, although Sunderland completed four papers on the cerebral cortex while in Oxford, using the Marchi staining technique and retrograde neuronal degeneration for tracing cortical projections in the macaque monkey. Fortunately for both Sunderland and the University of Melbourne, on 21 July 1938 he was offered, and accepted, the chair of anatomy in the University of Melbourne! He was then 27 years old.

Sunderland arranged with the University of Melbourne to take up his professorial duties early in 1940, so that he could complete the research he had begun at Oxford and also make the 'grand tour' of several active laboratories in North America. While in Oxford he spent much time in the neuro-surgical unit of the recently appointed first Nuffield Professor of Surgery, Sir Hugh Cairns. Cairns, an Adelaide graduate and one of the pioneers of neurosurgery in the UK, encouraged Sunderland's participation in neuroanatomical research in his department. There he developed a friendship with the brilliant Pio del Rio-Hortega, a political refugee from Franco's Spain, who had been a student to the Nobel Laureate Ramon y Cajal. Rio-Hortega introduced Sunderland to the various silver staining techniques that the Spanish neurohistologists had developed for visualizing the fine structure of neurons and glial cells, and especially microglial cells, which Rio-Hortega had independently identified.

Sunderland left Oxford in mid-1939 to spend three months at the Montreal Neurological Institute with Wilder Penfield's group, then at its peak. Penfield's very great contribution, for which he received both the Nobel Prize and the Order of Merit, was his systematic investigation of the functional organization of the human cerebral cortex. This study was done on patients undergoing cerebral surgery for the removal of tumors or scar tissue resulting from previous brain injury: at that time, these procedures were done in the conscious patient using local anesthesia at the surgical site. Penfield developed methods of identifying and mapping those regions of the cortex directly concerned with the voluntary movement of the limbs and the perception of the surrounding world. Once identified, these zones could be avoided or minimally resected by the neurosurgeon when removing the tumor or scar tissue: this minimized the sensorimotor disability resulting from the surgical removal of brain tissue. These procedures were soon to become especially important in dealing with the aftermath of penetrating wounds of the head in the war-injured. Sunderland developed the greatest respect for Penfield and his research, and about twenty years later was able to invite him to contribute to the celebration of the centenary of the Melbourne University Medical School (1962). At these celebrations the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws was conferred on Penfield.

Other groups visited in this 'grand tour' late in 1939, under the shadow of the impending world conflict, were the important neuroanatomical and clinical neurological groups at Toronto and Harvard, the neurophysiologist John Fulton at Yale, the neurosurgeon Earl Walker at Johns Hopkins, who had just published his classic monograph on the connections and organization of the primate thalamus, and the neurological centres at St Louis, Chicago, Rochester, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Sunderland returned to Melbourne at the end of 1939, after the outbreak of war.

Sydney Sunderland's early association with Wood Jones, and his short period in Oxford before the outbreak of the Second World War, were to determine the direction of his subsequent professional career as a neuroanatomist. Wood Jones was larger than life, an excellent teacher, public speaker and writer (as in his book, The Hand), sharply alert to what would interest an audience and, most importantly, an outstanding intellect. He was one of the thinking, observational biologists of his generation and, although often controversial (he was anti-Darwinian), commanded respect from a wide international scientific audience. Le Gros Clark, Penfield, and Earl Walker trod a different path, with an emphasis on experimentation and the application of innovative techniques. Each of these great exper-imentalists was prepared to speculate on the meaning of the data, and to develop models of cortical and thalamic organization that could then be further examined by appropriate experimentation. In addition, Le Gros Clark was a great comparative anatomist, especially interested in primate evolution. (In the 1950s, he played an important role in exposing the Piltdown forgery.) Thus, the young Sunderland had the good fortune to work with some of the great neuroanatomists of the period, and their imprint was apparent in the whole of his subsequent career. Sunderland did publish many experimental studies on nerve and nerve injuries, but his strength and evident primary interest was along the observational path of Wood Jones. Rather than pursuing comparative anatomical studies of the brain, however, as did Wood Jones and Le Gros Clark, Sunderland was to turn his research focus to the human peripheral nervous system and its responses to injury. This shift was really dictated by the circumstances of the Second World War, and the many Australian troops chronically disabled by nerve injuries produced by penetrating injuries of the limbs in the period 1940-1945. An attractive feature of such studies was that they led to great advances in the surgical management of nerve injuries, which in turn enhanced the recovery of useful limb function in many patients.

A perhaps unexpected change in Sunderland's subsequent post-war career was that although his early mentors were now in English universities, he became more closely linked to clinical neuroscience in the USA than to that in the UK. This may have resulted from the friendly support and encouragement the very young Sunderland received in North America, contrasting with the more austere and reserved response of some English academics to 'colonials'.

Wartime Experience

Sydney Sunderland was working in Penfield's department at the outbreak of war in 1939, but was able to return to the University of Melbourne by the end of that year. In addition to chairing the Department of Anatomy and doing most of the teaching of undergraduates throughout the period of the war, Sunderland became responsible for a Peripheral Nerve Injuries Unit that had been set up at the 115 AGH, Heidelberg, Victoria. All Australian servicemen sustaining chronic nerve injuries were sent to this unit for treatment. The experience of the next five years was to provide the framework of Sunderland's subsequent research career, in which peripheral nerve organization and its repair following injury were to become central topics. Eighty years earlier, Union troops with rifle-bullet wounds of peripheral nerves sustained in the battle of Gettysberg had triggered the first intensive and systematic study, by Weir Mitchell, of nerve injuries and their consequences, including the excruciating and disabling condition of causalgia. Sunderland was now able to parallel the research of his eminent predecessor, with the advantage of having powerful new neuroanatomical research tools and a backup of improved neurosurgical procedures that surgeons could possibly develop to repair injured nerves. The first papers reporting these clinical neurological studies were published in 1944-45.

Research Contribution

Throughout his career Sydney Sunderland retained wide research interests, evident from papers published on various aspects of topographic anatomy, structure of the cerebral cortex, the connections of the hypothalamus, the vascular supply of various organs and tissues, the pupilloconstrictor pathways, and medical education. Nonetheless, the majority of his papers were focused on the structure of human peripheral nerves, the pathophysiology of nerve injury and regeneration, the disabilities of hand function resulting from nerve injuries of the forelimb, and the natural history of anatomical and functional recovery following these injuries. A number of papers were concerned with the innervation of the small muscles of the hand, the normal action of these muscles, and their abnormal actions following nerve injury. Sunderland considered that his own work 'was at all times directed to the elucidation of those principles on which the clinical management of nerve injuries should be based'. One great strength of Sunderland's peripheral nerve studies was that he personally was able to study the natural history of each of 365 patients with peripheral nerve injuries for a period of ten years or more, and to follow the successive stages of their recovery of sensorimotor function. This very effective co-operation of patient (mainly battle casualties) and investigator flowed from the trust that developed between them. After their discharge from hospital, many of these patients, now ex-servicemen, would repeatedly travel long distances to be examined and reviewed by Sunderland. These men strongly believed in the great value of this long, systematic study of their nerve injuries. A second strength of this longitudinal study was that the surgical repair of nerve injuries was not performed by Sunderland, thus introducing the essential objectivity needed in such studies. In fact, much of the reparative surgery was done by Sunderland's mentor Hugh Trumble. The two editions of Nerves and Nerve Injuries (1968, 1978), and Nerve Injuries and Their Repair (1991) summarize this large body of work and place it in the context of other contemporary work in the field. In his foreword to the first edition of Sunderland's encyclopedic monograph, Sir Francis Walshe pointed out that 'This volume has clearly been a labour of love of many years for its author'. The enduring quality of these studies is evident from the fact that in the period 1991-1995 Sunderland's publications were cited on average in 110 neurological papers each year (ISI Neuroscience Citation Index). In his later life Sunderland was often referred to as the 'father of modern nerve surgery'. In 1979 he was the honoured Founders Lecturer of the American Society for Surgery of the Hand at its meeting in San Francisco, and in 1986 at an international meeting in Tokyo he was cited as a 'Pioneer in the Field of Hand Surgery'.

Revealing features of Sunderland's research were that he was sole author of about 75% of his published papers, and that in the remaining papers the co-authors were usually long-time colleagues and members of the Department of Anatomy (Bradley, Ray, Lavarack, Merrillees, Roche, Adey). Although meticulous and elegantly planned, Sunderland's research did not depend on the use of technically innovative procedures and equipment, reflecting his view that good research is the product of carefully shaped questions, accurate observation and thoughtful analysis of the data obtained. Sunderland dismissed mindless experimentation and thought it to be too common in the current neurobiology. This view, of course, was in accord with those of two of his heroes, the great experimentalist Claude Bernard and the great field naturalist Frederic Wood Jones.

The following paragraphs briefly summarize Sydney Sunderland's research achievements. This work, with a full bibliography, is most accessible in Sunderland's monographs.

Structure of human peripheral nerves

Sunderland recognized the complexity of the biology of peripheral nerves, and that the function of their consistent axons depends in no small measure on their blood supply and the organization of the interfascicular connective tissue of each nerve. These non-neural elements were recognized as having an important role in limiting the effects of injury on the axon populations of a nerve, and on the subsequent processes of functional recovery. Sunderland examined and described the fascicular anatomy of all the major nerve trunks in the human subject, emphasizing their changing patterns along the length of each trunk, and their relations to specific nerve branches of the main trunk that innervate particular muscles or particular areas of skin. He attempted to correlate these anatomical patterns with the susceptibility of each nerve to injury resulting from mechanical deformation, and with its subsequent recovery following mechanical injury.

Pathophysiology of nerve injury and regeneration

Sunderland also studied the axon populations of peripheral nerves, their responses to injury, and their subsequent degeneration or regeneration. Again, these studies were mainly on human tissues. In one study the atrophy of the endoneural tube distal to the site of axonal injury was found to have little effect on the subsequent regrowth of the axon into the denervated tissue. Similarly, it was found that the atrophy of muscle fibres resulting from prior denervation did not limit their subsequent reinnervation, even when the period of denervation had extended over many months. These studies did show clearly that the full restoration of muscle function following interruption of its nerve supply depends on much more than the simple re-establishment of neuromuscular continuity. The motoneuronal axons which make synaptic contact with the denervated muscle fibres must originate from the appropriate motoneuronal pools in the spinal cord, they must be sufficient in number, and they must reinnervate a substantial fraction of the initially denervated extrafusal muscle fibres. In addition, the innervation and function of muscle spindles in these muscles must be re-established. Comparable studies of cutaneous nerves emphasized the complexity of sensory innervation and the myriad factors which determine the recovery of cutaneous sensibility following nerve injury.

Sunderland also systematically examined the manner and rate of regeneration of previously interrupted peripheral nerve axons, how this varied in different nerves and was modified by the type of nerve injury, and how different types of surgical repair could influence the final recovery of sensory or motor function in the patient.

In addition to studying gunshot wounds of nerves, Sunderland also examined traction and compression injuries of those nerves mediating sensorimotor functions of the hand. As with penetrating injuries, he found that the integrity of the nerve's blood supply was critical, and that factors impairing it were those which also impaired nerve conduction. Furthermore, those peripheral nerves most readily injured by traction were characterized by having relatively few large fascicles of nerve fibres supported by a minimum of non-neural interfascicular tissue.

Painful sequelae of nerve injuries

Yet another problem examined by Sunderland was a relatively common and severely debilitating complication that can develop following a proximal lesion of one of the nerves innervating the hand or foot. This extremely painful condition, first systematically studied by Weir Mitchell eighty years earlier and termed causalgia by him, most commonly occurs following an incomplete nerve lesion resulting from a missile penetrating the upper arm or thigh, and may develop immediately following the injury, or weeks or months later. Sunderland's contribution to the understanding of the basis of causalgia was to bring together the evidence for a central spinal location for its neuropathology, supporting the views of Livingstone. This model did not preclude contributing factors operating at the site of nerve injury, but it did emphasize that the etiology of the condition is complex, and it provided an explanation for the well-known clinical finding that repair of the peripheral nerve injury or removal of local neuromas may not cure the condition. Although the focus of recent studies, the neuronal genesis of causalgia is still not clear. However, Sunderland's idea that there is disruption of the processing of sensory information in the regional spinal cord circuitry receiving input from the injured nerve, is still current.

The classification of peripheral nerve injuries

Extensive experience with peripheral nerve injuries, their surgical management and 'repair', and the subsequent recovery of sensorimotor function, prompted Sunderland to develop a classification that is based on the histopathology of the nerve injury rather than its cause. He recognized five stages of nerve damage, increasing in severity from loss of nerve conduction in structurally intact axons, loss of axonal continuity and associated Wallerian degeneration, the disruption of the internal structure of nerve fascicles, the disorganization of the nerve trunk's fascicular anatomy, and finally the loss of continuity of the nerve trunk. Each category of nerve injury could be recognized clinically, and provided some guide to the prognosis of the injury and the best form of clinical management.

In seeking to explain the impact of Sunderland's research on peripheral nerve injury, several factors stand out. First, he approached each problem through questions that would be clinically relevant, and examined them systematically in terms of the known neuroanatomy and neurophysiology. Secondly, he was always practical and down-to-earth in his approach and, especially in his 'bible' on nerve injuries, explained carefully how sensorimotor dysfunction might be assessed by the neurologist in the months following nerve injury or attempts at repair. Sunderland's studies of nerve injuries happened to coincide with the introduction of penicillin, so that surgeons could now concentrate their efforts on microsurgical techniques. This meant that the microanatomy of peripheral nerves, at the level of resolution that could be visualized at the operating table, assumed a special clinical importance that was largely met by Sunderland's investigations.

Professor of Anatomy 1987-1961

Sydney Sunderland was an excellent lecturer and soon had the reputation in the University of Melbourne Medical School of being a first-rate teacher of neuroanatomy. As was the current fashion, he used to great advantage the blackboard presentation of the three-dimensional relations of the different brain structures. In the background of the portrait of him, painted by Wes Walters, that hangs in the Sunderland Lecture Theatre in the Medical Centre at Parkville, this particular skill is alluded to. In teaching undergraduates, Sunderland relied on the highly competent presentation, both in the dissecting room and in the lecture theatre, of anatomical fact that he considered should constitute part of the education of every practising doctor. This matter-of-fact approach to teaching was particularly well expressed in the facilities of the new building that housed the Anatomy Department from 1967 and that was largely designed, in all its grandeur, by Sunderland and his staff. The fully air-conditioned dissecting room, the excellent anatomy museum and the 'Padua' theatres for small-group tutorials and demonstrations that they designed, continue to be greatly appreciated by the hordes of undergraduate students who currently use them. Sunderland fully exploited these wonderful facilities by appointing competent and knowledgeable tenured senior academic staff, and using trainee surgeons to tutor undergraduate students in anatomy. The senior staff of the Department of Anatomy included early Melbourne associates (Russell, Ray, and Bradley, each of whom became a professor in the Department) and other very experienced anatomists (Drs Lavarack, Merrillees and Adey).

In 1953-54, at the beginning of his period as Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, Sydney Sunderland was Visiting Professor of Anatomy in Bodian's department in the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine at Baltimore, and during that year was freed from administrative duties and able to concentrate on his research and teaching.

Dean of Faculty of Medicine 1958-1971

Sydney Sunderland was elected Dean of the Faculty of Medicine in 1953. As Professor of Anatomy he held this part-time position until 1961. He was then appointed Professor of Experimental Neurology and held this position and that of Dean until 1971. He retired in 1975 but continued working in the Department of Anatomy as Emeritus Professor until 1993.

During his eighteen years as Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, Australian universities, and particularly the medical schools, changed profoundly. In no small measure this upheaval was the result of the recommendations of the Australian Universities Commission, of which Sunderland was a leading member. In the 1950s a number of clinical chairs were set up in the teaching hospitals, in medicine, surgery, psychiatry, obstetrics and gynecology, ophthalmology, and child health. The establishment of a second medical school in Melbourne, at Monash University in 1960, with the transfer of the use of Alfred Hospital and Prince Henry's Hospital as teaching hospitals to Monash, produced serious overloading of the teaching facilities at the Royal Melbourne and St Vincent's Hospitals that remained with the University of Melbourne. The shortage of teaching facilities was compounded by the University's commitment to the State Government to expand the intake of medical students in order to meet the perceived need for medical services in Victoria. These problems were slowly resolved by pursuing a vigorous policy of expansion of the preclinical and clinical University departments that was implemented during Sunderland's deanship. During his period as Dean the number of professors was increased from six to twenty-four, mainly in the clinical departments, and a Clinical Sciences Block was built in each teaching hospital affiliated with the University of Melbourne. New buildings to house the preclinical departments and the Brownless Medical Library were completed in 1967, and the Austin Hospital became an important addition to the teaching hospitals of the Medical School of the University of Melbourne.

Services to Australian and Victorian Governments

Sydney Sunderland was an active member of many Federal Government committees. He represented universities with medical schools on the National Health and Medical Research Council, and was a member of the Council's Medical Research Advisory Committee from 1953 to 1969. He was chairman of the latter committee from 1964 to 1969. In 1970-1971 he was a member of the Advisory Medical Board of Australia.

One of Sunderland's most important and fruitful commitments to the Federal Government was his long association with the Australian Universities Commission. He was the longest-serving member of the AUC, working from 1962 until 1976 with all four chairmen of the Commission - Sir Leslie Martin, Sir Lennox Hewitt, Sir Henry Basten and Professor Peter Karmel. Even before joining the AUC, Sunderland worked on a sub-committee with Sir Leslie Martin to assess the costs of the clinical training of medical students in teaching hospitals, a task that involved visiting all the medical schools and most teaching hospitals throughout Australia. The report of this committee provided the baseline data for the subsequent operations of the AUC.

The AUC was feverishly active in the 1960s and '70s, during which period twelve new universities and six new medical schools were created. At the same time the older universities received substantial injections of funds. Sunderland was involved in all these developments, particularly those relating to medical schools and teaching hospitals. He was a persistent advocate of payment for clinical teaching undertaken by visiting honorary medical staff, and of the building of Clinical Science facilities in teaching hospitals to accommodate university clinical science departments, both practices eventually being adopted.

Sunderland was particularly involved with the establishment of the medical school in Perth, not initially through the AUC but through a sub-committee of the Senate of the University of Western Australia, appointed in 1955. Financial support from the AUC eventually gave reality to the University's proposal.

Sunderland had a long association with the Australian Department of External Affairs. His most important commitment, although eventually it came to nothing, was in Indonesia. At the request of the Indonesian Government, the Australian Government agreed to support the creation of a medical school at Bukittingi, in central Sumatra (1956-1960). The project was to operate under the auspices of the Medical School of the University of Melbourne. Planning was well advanced, buildings erected, and an Australian co-ordinator in residence, when the scheme had to be abandoned because of the outbreak of civil war in the area. During the 1960s, Sunderland acted in an advisory capacity concerning the establishment of medical schools in various other countries, including Burma and New Guinea.

Other Committees of the Federal Government that were chaired by Sunderland included the Protective Chemical Research Advisory Committee (1964-73), the Safety Review Committee of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission (1961-74), and the National Radiation Advisory Committee (1951-1964).

Sydney Sunderland was created a Knight Bachelor by the Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia on 12 June 1971 'for distinguished services to medicine and government'.

Sunderland also served for remarkably long periods on State Governmental bodies, including the Zoological Board of Victoria (1944-1965), the National Museum of Victoria, of which he was a Trustee and Council Member from 1954 to 1982, and the Medical Advisory Committee to the Mental Hygiene Authority of Victoria (1952-1963).

Australian Academy of Science

Sunderland was one of the twenty-three Foundation Fellows of the Australian Academy of Science and played an important part in its early development. He, along with O.W. Tiegs and T.M. Cherry, was assigned the task of drafting the bye-laws of the Academy.

Dr John Nicholson became the first Secretary (Biological Sciences) in 1954 but resigned early in the following year. Sunderland was elected to succeed him (1955-1958) and joined the Council, which included Mark Oliphant as President, David Martyn as Secretary (Physical Sciences) and Hedley Marston as Treasurer. In this early stage of the Academy's history, much of the Council's business was complex and contentious and its meetings were quite turbulent. Martyn and Marston were bitter adversaries who could never agree. Sunderland was friendly with the other members of the Council but found that he could rarely if ever make peace between the contestants. This frustrating and tedious period was one that Sunderland was later to recall without any enthusiasm.

Sunderland was also an active member of the Council's Building Committee that selected Roy Grounds to design the Academy's building in Canberra. Since he knew Grounds and lived in Melbourne, Sunderland was assigned the task of interacting with the architect, and as a consequence played an important role in the Building Committee's deliberations.

Other Professional Activities

Governing bodies and boards of management of research institutes sought Sunderland's advice and judgment throughout his career. He was a long-time member of the Council of the University of Melbourne, of the Committee of Management of the Royal Melbourne Hospital and of the Board of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, and a Trustee of the Van Cleef Foundation. In recognition of Sir Sydney's thirty years' service as a Governor of the Ian Potter Foundation from 1964 until 1993, in 1994 this Foundation established the annual Sunderland Award of $10,000 to enable a selected young neurobiologist, working in a field that would have interested Sir Sydney, to gain research experience in an overseas laboratory of the recipient's choice.

International Recognition

By the 1950s, Sydney Sunderland's work was becoming widely recognized and respected by those clinical groups concerned with nerve injuries in human subjects, a reputation that was greatly enhanced by the publication of the first edition of Nerves and Nerve Injuries in 1968. As a result, he was invited to lecture at more than fifty international symposia and conferences in the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Holland, Norway, Sweden, Germany, France, Austria, the United States, Canada, South Africa, India, China, Japan, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Lady Sunderland accompanied him to each of these meetings, often four to six per year. Sunderland enjoyed these meetings, and continued to participate in them in his eighties.

The Sunderland Society

A remarkable and unique tribute to Sydney Sunderland's contribution to the clinical study of nerve injury was the formation of the Sunderland Society in the early 1980s. The following resume of the origins of this society is based on information provided by Drs George E. Omer, Jr and J. Leonard Goldner (see acknowledgments). In 1978 a group of surgeons interested in peripheral nerve pathology met at Duke University with J. Leonard Goldner as host, in order to explore the possibility of establishing a Peripheral Nerve Study Group. Following on from this, it was agreed that clinicians and research scientists with an interest in peripheral nerves should meet periodically to exchange their clinical experience, to assess recent advances in research on peripheral nerves, to establish what important issues were not understood, and to attempt to direct research into these latter problems. Action was prompt and in August 1979 a group including Drs Spinner, Curtis, Kutz, Omer, Wilgis, Jabalay, Urbaniak and Tupper set about organizing a formal meeting of the Study Group. The membership of this Group was quickly expanded to about 22, and included some from the United States, Austria, Canada, Sweden and Switzerland. Sunderland was invited to join the Group in 1980.

Just prior to this time, the second edition of Sir Sydney's Nerve and Nerve Injuries was published and he was invited by the President of the American Society for Surgery of the Hand, George Omer, to be the Founders Lecturer at the 1979 meeting of this Society in San Francisco. These events duly prompted the Study Group to adopt the new name of the Sunderland Society, a change that was unanimously accepted by all its members. This change was in recognition of Sir Sydney's considerable contribution to our current understanding of the biology and pathology of peripheral nerves at a level of immediate relevance to neurologists and neurosurgeons involved in the management and surgery of peripheral nerve lesions.

Sir Sydney was delighted by this honour and, along with Lady Sunderland, attended the meeting of the Sunderland Society at Santa Fe in May 1983. Furthermore, he was an active participant in all the following twelve meetings, some in Europe, up till 1993. The most recent meeting of the Sunderland Society was in Zurich in 1995, hosted by Professor V.E. Meyer.


Sir Sydney Sunderland walked the corridors of power for the greater part of his long professional career. In spite of this he remained a genuinely attractive man, shrewd but both generous and optimistic in his judgment of others. He was an enthusiast and could quickly become excited by new experimental findings of his colleagues. In the last ten years of his life when I came to know him a little through regular contact in the Department of Anatomy, I could always be sure of arousing his critical interest by telling him of our recent experiments on the macaque's cortex. He had traced out cortical connections in the macaque fifty years earlier in Le Gros Clark's laboratory, and retained a clear image of the questions that still need to be answered. One was sure of a useful but critical discussion of cortical structure, and of the experiments just completed. Furthermore, everyone in our laboratory, from student to professor, could be sure of being taken seriously by Sir Sydney in any such discussion. For this alone he gained their lasting respect and affection. At a more down-to-earth level, Sunderland was generous in his support for any investigator seeking funds whom he judged to be working on a good, well-defined biological problem, and who had the skills to do the necessary experiments.

Sunderland dedicated all his monographs to his wife, Nina Gwendoline Sunderland, and insisted that without her help and support throughout his career these would not have been published. Lady Sunderland graduated as a lawyer at the University of Melbourne in 1938, before her marriage to Sydney in 1939, and completed her articles on returning to Australia. After that she committed much of her time to helping him prepare and publish his many research papers and his three major books, and she accompanied him to many of the professional meetings at which he spoke. Their son, Ian Sydney Sunderland, graduated in medicine at the University of Melbourne, and is Investigating Officer for the Medical Practitioners Board of Victoria.

Sir Sydney Sunderland died on 27 August 1993, in his 83rd year.

Degrees, Qualifications and Honours

1935 M.B., B.S. Melbourne
1941 F.R.A.C.P.
1945 D.Sc. Melbourne
1946 M.D. Melbourne
1952 F.R.A.C.S. (Honorary)
1954 F.A.A. (Foundation Fellow)
1961 C.M.G.
1970 M.D. (Honorary) Tasmania
1975 M.D. (Honorary) Queensland
1975 LL.D. (Honorary) Melbourne
1977 LL.D. (Honorary) Monash
1971 (12 June) Knight Bachelor

Academic Appointments

1936-1937 Senior Lecturer in Anatomy, University of Melbourne
1936-1937 Honorary Assistant Neurologist and Neurosurgeon, Alfred Hospital, Melbourne
1939-1961 Professor of Anatomy, University of Melbourne
1953-1954 Visiting Professor of Anatomy, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Md, USA
1953-1971 Dean of Medicine, University of Melbourne
1951-1975 Professor of Experimental Neurology, University of Melbourne
1972-1978 Fogarty Scholar in Residence, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Md, USA
1976-1993 Professor Emeritus, University of Melbourne
1977 Sterling Bunnell Lecturer and Visiting Professor of Orthopedic Surgery, University of California, USA
1979 Founders Lecturer, American Society for Surgery of the Hand

Professional Activities

1951-1967 Member of Council, University of Melbourne
1957-1969 Australian Representative on Pacific Science Council
1960-1968 Member of Victorian State Council, Australian Medical Association
1963-1971 Member, Committee of Management, Royal Melbourne Hospital
1964-1993 Governor, Ian Potter Foundation
1968-1975 Member of Board, Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, Melbourne
1971-1993 Trustee, Van Cleef Foundation, Melbourne
1972-1993 Member, Howard Florey Institute of Experimental Physiology and Medicine, Melbourne
1975-1978 Vice-President, International Association for the Study of Pain

Honorary Membership

1964 Australian Association of Neurologists
1971 Anatomical Society of Great Britain and Ireland
1973 Anatomical Society of Australia and New Zealand
1975 Neurosurgical Society of Australasia
1975 Australian Medical Association
1975 American Neurological Association

Commonwealth Government Appointments

1958-1969 Member, National Health and Medical Research Council, and Medical Research Advisory Committee
1964-1969 Chairman, Medical Research Advisory Committee, NH&MRC
1957-1975 Member, Defence Research and Development Policy Committee, Dept. Defence
1957-1978 Member, Defence Medical Services Committee, Dept. Defence
1957-1964 Member, National Radiation Advisory Committee (Chairman, 1959-1964)
1961-1974 Chairman, Safety Review Committee, Australian Atomic Energy Commission
1962-1976 Member, Australian Universities Commission
1964-1973 Chairman, Protective Chemistry Research Advisory Committee, Dept. Supply
1970-1971 Advisory Medical Council of Australia


Lady Sunderland provided the author with many details of the career of Sir Sydney, and with various documents that he wrote. I am most grateful to her. George E. Omer, Jr, Professor and Chairman Emeritus, Department of Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, and J. Leonard Goldner, James B. Duke Professor, Chief Emeritus, Division of Orthopaedic Surgery, Division of Surgery, Duke University Medical Center, Durham sent the author a detailed account of the formation of the Sunderland Society and its subsequent history. I thank them for their great assistance. Professor Graeme Ryan helped. in many ways in preparing this memoir. Iris Welcome uncovered many University documents relevant to it, and typed the bibliography.


Jones, F. Wood, The Principles of Anatomy as Seen in the Hand, 2nd edition (London: Railliere, Tindall and Cox, 1941).

Haymaker, W,, and F. Schiller, The Founders of Neurology, 2nd edition (Springfield, Ill.: C.C. Thomas, 1970).

Le Gros Clark, W., Chant of Pleasant Exploration (Edinburgh: Livingstone, 1968).

Penfield, W., and H. Jasper, Epilepsy and the Functional Anatomy of the Human Brain (Boston: Little, Brown, 1954).

Ian Darian-Smith, Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology, and Howard Florey Institute of Experimental Physiology and Medicine, University of Melbourne, Parkville, Victoria 3052.

This memoir was originally published in Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 11, no. 1, June 1996, pp. 51-65.

Published by the Australian Science Archives Project on ASAPWeb, 8 April 1998
Comments or corrections to: Bright Sparcs (bsparcs@asap.unimelb.edu.au)
© Australian Academy of Science
Prepared by: Elissa Tenkate
Updated by: Elissa Tenkate
Date modified: 12 July 2002

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