Lives of the fellows

Alfred John Barnett

b.27 March 1915 d.5 August 2007
MB BS Melb(1939) MD MRCP(1948) FRACP(1956) FRCP(1974)

Alf Barnett, a pioneer of the surgical treatment of vascular disease, died from a stroke in a Ballarat nursing home.

Barnett was born at Dunolly, in Western Victoria, the son of a dairy farmer in poor circumstances. He won a scholarship to Wesley College in Melbourne, graduated from Melbourne University in 1939, and became a resident medical officer at the Alfred Hospital in 1940.

The following year he became assistant medical superintendent at the Mackay District Hospital, Queensland, and served in the second AIF in Australia and New Guinea from 1941 to 1946. In 1942, early in his military service in Queensland, he married Hazel. On discharge in 1946 he was appointed associate physician at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. In 1948 he obtained a travel scholarship from the Returned and Services League to study in Britain, where he became a clinical assistant to Professor Pickering [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.464] at St Mary’s Hospital. At the end of that year he became a member of the Royal College of Physicians.

At St Mary's he developed what was to be his lifelong interests in hypertension and peripheral blood flow.

On his return to Australia in 1949, he was appointed Kimpton Research Scholar at the Alfred Hospital’s clinical research unit and became specialist physician to the Alfred. He also began to develop non-invasive methods of investigation of peripheral vascular disease. Barnett gained fellowship of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians in 1956, and was awarded fellowship of the Royal College of Physicians (London) in 1974.

In the years that followed, he became assistant director of the Alfred’s clinical research unit, then associate director, with Dr Tom Lowe [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.324], of the Baker Institute. In 1973, on Lowe’s retirement, he became acting director. In 1975 he was appointed as physician at the Alfred’s vascular unit, where he continued until his retirement in 1980.

From 1950 Barnett's interest in peripheral vascular disease and its investigation by means of plethysmography, calorimetry and oscillometry led him to see patients who had various degrees of disability in walking, including gangrene of the extremities.

When a patient presented with an aneurism of the artery behind the knee, Barnett decided the appropriate treatment would be excision of the effected artery followed by reconstruction. Vascular surgery involving direct attack on the vessels did not exist at the time.

He reasoned that the only surgeons available with any experience of handling arteries were thoracic surgeons. He persuaded Jim (later Sir James) Officer Brown to excise the dilated segment of the vessel and repair the resultant defect. Encouraged by this success, Barnett began to refer patients who were suffering from occlusive disease of the peripheral vessels to the thoracic unit for operation. Patients with disease of smaller vessels were sent to his neurosurgical colleagues, Hugh Trumble and Keith Bradley, until a vascular unit was formed.

The encouraging results of operations soon increased the load on the thoracic unit, leading to the formation of the Alfred’s vascular unit. At the end of 1975, Barnett was appointed vascular physician, a position he held until he retired in 1980.

In addition to disease of the larger vessels, he was interested in conditions effecting smaller vessels, particularly scleroderma, and gave much attention to those unfortunate enough to suffer from this condition. In 1974 he wrote a monograph published in the United States titled Scleroderma, Progressive Systemic Sclerosis.

Barnett was survived by his wife, Hazel, and son, David.

I Ferguson

[Adapted from The Age November 13, 2007 p14 with permission; Reproduced, with permission, from the Royal Australasian College of Physicians’ College Roll]

(Volume XII, page web)

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