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Furnass, Stanley Bryan (1927–2017)

by Don Anderson

Bryan Furnass, 1980

Bryan Furnass, 1980

ANU Archives, ANUA 225-426

Bryan [Furnass] was well known among his Emeritus Faculty colleagues. He was a founding member, speaker and, until his illness, regular participant in Wednesday lunch discussions. We remember him for his dry wit, terrible puns, informed advocacy of sustainability, and for insights on climate change and its implications for the health of the planet and its inhabitants. His contributions to medicine and the ANU are perhaps less well known to Emeritus Faculty members.

A highly qualified and experienced medical practitioner, Bryan completed basic medical training and, later, an MD (Metabolic Studies in Obesity) at Oxford University. Following graduation, he was appointed medical Registrar at Middlesex Hospital. Despite bright prospects in UK, Bryan and Anne (they had married in 1955) decided that there were better places than foggy and polluted London to bring up their children, and accepted an invitation to join a general practice in Goulburn, NSW. This was followed by some years of practice in ACT. And when, in the mid-1960s, ANU was setting up services for students in counselling, study skills, medicine and careers advice, Cedric Mims, a colleague from London who had joined the John Curtin School of Medical Research, encouraged Bryan to apply for the medical service. Bryan was appointed foundation director of the ANU Medical Service in 1966, and held this post until his retirement in 1992. A clue as to how the service would operate was his changing the name to Student Health Service, and shifting its location so that it was readily accessible to students—the emphasis was to be on health (rather than ‘illth’). This was consistent with his philosophy that a primary aim of the service should be to keep students fit. The general prescription was ‘diet, exercise and relaxation’. And, where medical intervention was necessary, it should, whenever appropriate, be made with knowledge of the student’s work and social context.

The various student services were required to prepare annual reports for the professorial board. One year, tongue in cheek, Bryan commenced his report with the assertion:

The chief objective of the ANU Health Service is to protect students from advances in modern medicine.’ Not being prescribed pills didn’t always go down well with students. His approach to the practice of medicine was decades ahead of current concerns that ‘over-diagnosis, the related overuse of medical tests and treatments, and screening healthy people can have down-sides’. (Cancer Council, 2017)

He was well known around the campus, aware of circumstances affecting students, and where necessary collaborated with other agencies, in particular Margaret Evans, head of student counselling. That he (and other professionals in the service) preferred salaried posts rather than fee-for-service was consistent with his view that the first aim of a physician should be to keep people well. (This preference put Bryan and his medical colleagues off-side with the Australian Medical Association who prefer the arrangement that patients should pay the doctor following treatment.)

For Bryan, coming to the ANU was like joining a family: a learning community of students and staff engaged in a common enterprise. As Adrian Gibbs has written, he found the University’s senior managers to be enlightened, and supportive of his sometimes unorthodox approach to community health. Margaret Wallner was appointed part-time assistant physician, and Trish Levick, a physiotherapist, was appointed to meet the burgeoning demands that are inevitably part of university sporting activities. Pat Sorby, followed by Lindsay Sales, was community nurse in Garran Hall, providing out-of-hours medical help. Margaret Miller, who was nursing sister in the 1970s, recalls her appointment as a great learning experience: the nurses had the role of ‘nurse practitioner’ and, under the general supervision of one of the doctors, given responsibility for assessment, diagnosis and prescription. This was decades before the nurse practitioners became part of the public medical service. Margaret and her colleagues celebrated the 25th anniversary of the service by nominating Bryan as an Officer of Order of Australia, AO, for services to medicine and education.

Every week a ‘Wellness Centre’ was run at the Old Drill Hall, where students were assessed and tested for fitness and, where necessary, counselled with respect to diet, exercise and relaxation. By this time there were five physicians in the service: two full-time and three part-time. Judy Leigh was deputy to Bryan and would succeed him as director after his retirement.

Hundreds, indeed, thousands of students and numerous staff used and appreciated the professional advice and service received from the ANU Health Service under Bryan’s direction and leadership.

Bryan made his own contributions to knowledge, contributing some 30 articles on health, lifestyle, the environment and sustainability to various medical and scientific journals. And on practical advice such as ‘Health in the tropics: Survival guide for travellers and field workers’. In 1970 he convened for the Academy of Science a symposium on infectious diseases. In 1990, Vice-Chancellor Sir John Crawford commissioned him to take leave in order to prepare a comparative (five-country) study of students and drugs. Bryan reported that, in Australia, nicotine and alcohol were the chief culprits. (One wonders what would be found today.) He served on ANU Council for two years representing general staff.

Retirement in 1994 gave Bryan time to develop his interest in the big question: the survival of homo sapiens stupidus (his term) on a fragile planet.

Membership of the Nature and Society Forum (started by Stephen Boyden), stimulated Bryan’s interest in sustainable ecosystems. He began inquiring into and writing on the impacts of ‘civilisation’ on the epidemiology of disease, on infectious diseases, nutrition, the interaction of environmental change and human lifestyles with sustainability. An early report, ‘In Search of Sustainability’ (2004, co-authored with Jenny Goldie and Bob Douglas), led Bryan and colleagues in the Emeritus Faculty to pursue the question: What needs to happen to place the human species on a survival course? The quotation is from a recent Emeritus Faculty– sponsored seminar report, ‘Paths to the Future: Flourishing in a mega threatened world’, edited by Bob Douglas. The Vice-Chancellor agreed to take on some of the recommendations; sadly, Bryan did not live long enough to participate.

He was an educator and an advocate. In addition to talks and articles, he made frequent use of the letters columns of the Canberra Times and the Guardian, arguing for a more sustainable society, for better lifestyle, and for recognising and mitigating climate change. Bryan was a keen advocate for using ammonia as an environmentally friendly fuel (no CO2 emission, just nitrogen). He would have been pleased with CSIRO’s attention to the idea.

At their home in Downes Place, Bryan and Anne were the most convivial of hosts; and guests were as likely to see Bryan as Anne in the kitchen and wearing the apron. And, akin to his Wellness Resource Centre at ANU, neighbours were recruited into the ‘Downes Place Derelicts’ who, on early mornings, walked to the local golf course, ran around it sprinting to the end, with fitness test before and after. As one of the participants told me, the lesson was ‘look after your body and your body will look after you’.

One of Bryan’s talks to the Emeritus Faculty was ‘A case for easier death and natural burial’. His grave is unmarked in a beautiful forest setting at Gungahlin Cemetery.

View the list of obituaries written by Stanley Bryan Furnass

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Citation details

Don Anderson, 'Furnass, Stanley Bryan (1927–2017)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/furnass-stanley-bryan-32610/text40472, accessed 18 August 2022.

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