Lives of the fellows

Graeme Harrison Neilson

b.21 June 1925 d.12 August 2010
MB BS Queensland(1949) MRACP(1954) FRACP(1965) FRCP(1976)

Graeme Harrison Neilson was the first full-time cardiologist and the first director of cardiology at the Prince Charles Hospital, Brisbane, Australia. He was born in Brisbane, the son of Norman Harrison Neilson, a civil servant, and was educated at Yeronga State School and Church of England Grammar School. He won an open scholarship to the University of Queensland and graduated in medicine in 1949.

He was a resident medical officer at the Brisbane General Hospital (now Royal Brisbane) and later worked at the Diamantina Hospital at south Brisbane (which became Princess Alexandra Hospital). He was a medical registrar in the university unit at the Brisbane General Hospital, where he came under the influence of Sir Alexander Murphy [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.418], a doyen of Queensland medicine. Subsequently, Neilson travelled to London and worked at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School and then in the cardiology department at the Brompton Hospital. There he worked under the guidance of Paul Wood [Munk’s Roll, Vol.V, p.456], who wrote the classic early textbook on cardiology (Diseases of the heart and circulation, London, Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1950).

Neilson returned to Brisbane in 1957 and began private practice on Wickham Terrace. He also took up the role of visiting general physician at Princess Alexandra Hospital. He later obtained an appointment to look after tuberculosis patients at the Brisbane Chest Hospital, Chermside. Eventually the Commonwealth government funded a cardiac investigation unit with cardiac surgery at this hospital. Neilson was the first cardiologist appointed to the unit and became the founding director of cardiology there. When Prince Charles went to Brisbane and changed the name of the Chermside Chest Hospital to the Prince Charles Hospital, Graeme Neilson helped show him around, ensuring that the Prince was introduced to the children who were in hospital receiving treatment for congenital heart conditions.

Over the years, Neilson had a variety of research interests. In 1960, with Gus Galea, he performed the first catheter study in the state. He spent time in the Torres Strait and in Aboriginal communities, and published on the epidemiology of heart disease and rheumatic fever in those communities. He also worked with the local people to establish prophylactic antibiotic programmes for rheumatic fever.

His 1971 publication on Eisenmenger’s syndrome and pregnancy (Med J Aust 1971 Feb 20; 1[8]: 431–4) was an important piece of work and is still quoted today. In fact, the high mortality of this condition has changed little. Another significant paper from Neilson and colleagues appeared in Circulation in 1976 (Apr; 53[4]: 680–4), describing Q fever endocarditis, diagnosis and management.

Neilson contributed to the National Heart Foundation over many years with a variety of positions, including director and then president of the Queensland division and national vice-president. He was a powerful force in Queensland cardiology and was progressive in dealing with the changing dynamics of modern cardiology. When he retired in 1990, he described how the changes in cardiology that he had experienced over the previous 30 years were ‘absolutely unbelievable’.

Graeme Neilson was highly respected amongst his peers and popular with his staff. He was an example to his patients and staff, keeping fit and eating the right foods. Registrars and residents were often seen puffing up the stairs after him as he did not use the lifts during ward rounds.

His legacy is the cardiology service in the state of Queensland, where he did numerous outreach clinics, and of course, the highly reputed unit at the Prince Charles Hospital. Most of all, it is the many patients with congenital, rheumatic or ischaemic heart disease whose lives were changed by his intervention. He was survived by his wife, Diana née Tyrwhitt-Drake, the daughter of a grazier, his son and two daughters, and his six grandchildren.

D J Radford
Faye Robertson

(Volume XII, page web)

<< Back to List