Lives of the fellows

Alan Ferrers Knyvett

b.3 February 1925 d.22 November 2016
MB BS Queensland(1947) FRCP(1979) FRACP FRACMA

Alan (‘Nifty’) Knyvett was a specialist physician in internal medicine, clinical teacher and researcher, and a hospital administrator in Brisbane and then in Canberra. He was born in Grenfell, New South Wales, the birthplace of the poet Henry Lawson, but spent much of his early years in Cloncurry in north west Queensland, a mining and pastoral town of fewer than 2,000 people, where the high incidence of alcohol dependence, assault and domestic violence provided plenty of work for his father, Percy Gordon Knyvett, a Queensland stipendiary magistrate. Alan was educated at primary level in the Darling Downs town of Warwick, and then at ‘Churchie’ (the Anglican Church Grammar School), Brisbane from 1938 to 1941, winning an open scholarship to the University of Queensland. He graduated in medicine in 1947. He was fortunate perhaps in having completed his studies by the end of the Second World War, so did not see war service, unlike his older brother, Geoff Knyvett, a navigator in the Royal Australian Air Force, who was shot down over Bulgaria in 1944 (he survived).

After graduating, Alan was a resident medical officer (1947 to 1949) and teaching medical registrar in the professorial unit (1950 to 1951) at the Brisbane Hospital, and in 1952 travelled to the UK as a ship’s surgeon on a Merchant Navy vessel. He was a house physician at Hammersmith Hospital in 1952 and a medical registrar at the Hospital for Tropical Diseases, London, from 1953 to 1954. At Hammersmith, he had the privilege of working with Sheila Sherlock [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XI, p.514], pioneer of hepatology, and was greatly inspired by her – she later visited our home in Brisbane in the 1960s. It was also at Hammersmith Hospital that he met a fellow house physician, Suzette Mettrick, daughter of Yorkshire school teachers and a graduate of Leeds University, my mother.

Having returned to Brisbane on another Merchant Navy vessel at the end of 1954 with Sue, Alan continued on the staff of the Brisbane Hospital, as a specialist physician and, jointly, assistant medical superintendent. Although a truly general physician, his main interests in medicine were in gastroenterology (a relatively new specialty then) and infectious diseases. He was a member of the Gastroenterological Society of Australia, formed in 1959. I remember that gastroscopies were routinely performed on Saturday mornings, and always a lunchtime point of discussion, in my childhood of the 1960s. In 1967, he was awarded the Darcy Cowan memorial prize for his research into pulmonary calcifications associated with a severe attack of chickenpox, usually occurring in adult life, detected on the routine mass chest X-ray screenings of all adult Queenslanders at the time (‘The pulmonary lesions of chickenpox.’ Q J Med. 1966 Jul;35[139]:313-23). His study at home was populated with pieces of lung in pots, along with piles of radiographs.

Whilst continuing an active clinical role at the hospital as a specialist physician (and then as a senior physician from 1965 to 1974), Alan pursued a simultaneous career in hospital administration. He was general medical superintendent of the Royal Brisbane Hospital from 1967 until 1974, the biggest hospital in the country, and a founding fellow of the Australian College of Medical Administrators in 1967, and in later years on the College’s board of censors.

The superintendent’s residence, in the middle of the Royal Brisbane Hospital grounds, was my childhood home. It is now on the Queensland Heritage Register. How fortunate we were to occupy the beautiful house built in 1941, surrounded by gardens and magnificent trees, a gathering place for medical colleagues in his day, and for my own medical student colleagues in 1970s.

In 1975 he moved to Canberra, to take up the position of general superintendent at the Canberra Hospital, on the shore of Lake Burley Griffin, now the site of the National Museum of Australia. Those were happy years, during which he delighted in Canberra itself, the garden (especially his roses), his beloved magpies and the company of new friends. Though his role by this time was no longer clinical, he maintained his interest in clinical medicine – even long after his retirement in 1985, peering through a magnifying glass to read his regular medical journals. His deteriorating vision, together with a growing list of medical problems, did not curtail his passion for travel, within Australia and abroad. In both work and family life, he was a quiet gentleman, outwardly rather serious in manner, known for his careful, considered, measured responses whenever an opinion was required. His beautifully catalogued Kodachrome slides, along with neatly filed and saved travel brochures and itineraries, were testament to that meticulous nature.

Sadly, his brilliant, ordered, scholarly mind was no defence against the indiscriminate unfairness of Alzheimer’s disease, which progressed relentlessly in his last decade. He died aged 91, a year after the tragic death of his son David. He was survived by his beloved wife Sue and two daughters.

Ann Crawshaw

(Volume XII, page web)

<< Back to List