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Chang, Victor Peter (1936–1991)

by Margaret Harris

For Australia's, if not South-east Asia's, most well-known surgeon, Dr Victor Chang was surprisingly private.

"Charming" is how one St Vincent's doctor described him, "but difficult to know". Colleague after colleague and friend after friend say the same thing about Dr Chang.

Though private, he was generous and thoughtful, regularly taking patients and staff members out to dinner.

Staff at the Fortuna Court in Crow's Nest say they saw Dr Chang, his family and various patients and colleagues there for dinner virtually every Sunday.

All say that Dr Chang's fame was foisted on him rather than sought. It was his outstanding ability as a surgeon which made him the most prominent doctor in the southern hemisphere.

"He was an outstanding surgeon and an outstanding thinker - a very original thinker," said Professor John Hickie, chairman of the Heart-Lung Institute at St Vincent's.

His intellectual ability and passion for technology had led him to develop an artificial heart which, while still experimental, should be able to keep seriously ill heart patients alive while waiting for a transplant.

Dr Chang's colleagues said he would often finish operating at St Vincent's in Darlinghurst then drive to Prince Henry Hospital in Little Bay to experiment with the artificial heart.

His fascination with technology was also seen in his passion for cars, vintage and modern. He never missed an Adelaide Grand Prix.

Despite his many abilities, Dr Chang first became well-known as the leader of Australia's National Heart Transplant Unit which was established in 1984.

Dr Chang's association with heart transplantation goes back a long way. Australia's first heart transplant surgeon, Dr Harry Windsor, acted as Dr Chang's mentor, organising training posts for him in prestigious hospitals in England and America.

Dr Windsor first noticed Dr Chang's surgical talent when he was working as a junior resident at St Vincent's after graduating from the University of Sydney with a Bachelor of Medicine, a Bachelor of Surgery and a Bachelor of Science with first-class honours.

Born in Shanghai on November 25, 1936, Dr Victor Peter Chang Yam Him spent most of his life in Australia. His parents were Australian-born Chinese who moved back to Shanghai before Dr Chang was born, then moved to Burma before settling for a period in Hong Kong.

Dr Chang spent most of his childhood in Hong Kong, attending primary and early secondary schools before he travelled to Australia to complete the last three years of secondary education at Christian Brothers High School, Lewisham.

His father, Mr Aubrey Chang, 80, lives in Hong Kong.

After finishing high school, Dr Chang studied medicine at the University of Sydney, a course he completed in 1962. The young Dr Chang then spent the next three years working at St Vincent's and began training in cardiothoracic surgery. In August 1965, he moved to England where he did further training.

It was while in London that he met and married his wife, Anne, with whom he had three children, a girl and two boys now aged 21, 18 and 14. In 1970, Dr Chang moved to America where he worked at the Mayo Clinic for a year.

When, in 1984, it was announced that the national cardiac transplant unit would be established at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Dr Chang was able to get that decision reversed. He demonstrated that St Vincent's had enough funds — from a grateful South-east Asian donor — to go ahead with their own cardiac transplantation program and would do so.

The first transplant of the St Vincent's national heart transplant program was on Peter Apthorpe of Armidale in 1984.

But it was Fiona Coote, his second transplant patient, who captured the public imagination because she nearly died of cardiomyopathy brought about by a simple virus before receiving a heart in 1984. Though Ms Coote needed another transplant in 1986 she has done well and is a successful model.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 5 July 1991

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Citation details

Margaret Harris, 'Chang, Victor Peter (1936–1991)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/chang-victor-peter-14816/text26364, accessed 25 November 2014.

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