Vale: Peter James Gormly

AAM, FRCS, 1937–2012

Born and educated in New Zealand, Peter Gormly remained a staunch and proud New Zealander to the end, even though he spent the majority of his life outside of his native country. One might speculate on whether this influenced such an able, educated and cultured individual to become a complex, unconventional, and memorable character.

After graduating in 1962 from the Dunedin School of Medicine at the University of Otago, Peter practised in Christchurch before travelling to the UK in 1965. Here he worked at St Thomas’ Hospital London, at Uxbridge, Inverness and the Outer Hebrides, and with P&O Lines as Ship’s Surgeon. He gained his surgical FRCS (Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons) in 1970.

In May 1972 the Australian Antarctic Division received a letter from a surgeon’s wife in Inverness seeking a wintering position in Antarctica for her husband. This was considered a most unconventional application at the time but it was vintage Dr Gormly. Sir Vivian Fuchs, Director of the British Antarctic Survey, interviewed on behalf of the Antarctic Division and Peter commenced duties on 8 December, wintering at Casey in 1973. During winter he researched megadosage vitamin C, which was written up during 1974 and published in 1977.

In early 1975 Peter joined Canberra Hospital as an Orthopaedic Registrar and in 1976 he held the same position at the Royal Adelaide Hospital.

Wintering again at Mawson in 1977, Peter performed further research on vitamin C and nail growth, and was especially proud of his operation on the husky ‘Deefa’ to remove a piece of webbing from the stomach. A photo of the operation and the piece of webbing are displayed in the medical area at Kingston to this day. Peter accompanied the summer Enderby Land Survey and following his return in March 1978 stayed on to write up his research and to produce a pocket ANARE First Aid Manual. Prior to this time rudimentary resuscitation notes and St John Ambulance First Aid Manuals were used. Peter was not convinced of the need for a manual but agreed to try.  

It was fortuitous that Peter stayed on, as the only permanent Antarctic Division Head Office doctor was studying at the University of Cambridge for a year from September 1978, and the doctor chosen to act withdrew at short notice. Peter eagerly accepted the temporary appointment and became permanent in November 1978. He became the deputy following his colleague’s return in September 1979, thus giving Polar Medicine a much needed increase in Head Office staff.

October saw the release of the ANARE First Aid Manual (30 pages) without Peter’s name on it. The Second Edition of 54 pages appeared in September 1980, with his name on it and a foreword by John Masterton, who had been Medical Officer on the British North Greenland Expedition 1952–54, acknowledging Peter’s efforts with ‘he has done his job with skill and thankfully brevity’. Over nearly 30 years, seven editions were published, the last in 2008 of 106 pages, but still small enough to carry in the pocket in the field. The value of such a pocket manual for use in isolation has been recognized by many Antarctic medical groups and by NASA, and is a tribute to its author.

The review of pre-departure medical assessments of staff was largely performed by Dr Gormly and he created a valuable resource of epidemiological research data on pre-existing conditions and their effects on health during expeditions. Between the summers of 1978–79 and 1995–96 Peter was Medical Officer on no less than 20 voyages. He performed an appendicectomy on his last voyage.

While conducting much of the pre-departure training for both doctors and lay staff, he was renowned for his unforgettable sessions at the Bernacchi Lake Augusta Training Facility, and given the affectionate title of ‘Dr Death’. He found time to train staff in celestial navigation and wrote a manual Instant (or, at least, very quick) Celestial Navigation. The award of an Australian Antarctic Medal on Midwinter’s Day 1991 was due recognition for his efforts and proudly accepted by him. He retired in 2007.

Dr Gormly’s contribution to ANARE and the Australian Antarctic program was recognized by the large number of Antarctic Division staff and ex-expeditioners who joined his family at a celebration of his life on what would have been his 75th birthday.


¹Head Polar Medicine, AAD 1968–2001

²Chief Medical Officer, AAD 2002 — present