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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

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Owen, Earl (1934–2014)

by Matthew Benns

He famously reattached a boy’s finger in Australia’s first successful microsurgery procedure, and, as a result, was sacked from the hospital as a troublemaker.

Pioneering micro-surgeon Professor Earl Owen, whose funeral was held last week,
has left a legacy in microsurgery that has changed thousands of lives.

“He was a man of big ideas and right up until the end he was trying to do new things,” his former personal assistant Anna Thomas said.

“Professor Owen was a very driven and passionate man about what he did and he really did inspire people to pursue their own dreams.”

I did what I had set out to do but it wasn’t a smooth road. The morning after my brother-in-law and I had successfully re-planted a child’s amputated finger (believed until then to be impossible) I was dismissed from the hospital as a troublemaker.

It was in 1970, after years of ground-breaking work in microsurgery in London, that Professor Owen was confronted by two distraught parents in the then Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children in Sydney.

Their son Jason’s finger had been chopped off with an axe. They had brought the finger with them in a bag. Professor Owen decided to reattach the finger — sewing the nerve endings back together with a tiny needle under a microscope.

However, the conservative head of the hospital Dr Douglas Cohen refused to allow the operation to proceed. Prof Owen wilfully disobeyed him and performed Australia’s first successful finger reattachment.

“I did what I had set out to do but it wasn’t a smooth road. The morning after my brother-in-law and I had successfully re-planted a child’s amputated finger (believed until then to be impossible) I was dismissed from the hospital as a troublemaker,” he wrote in his recently released biography Under the Microscope.

But that did not stop him. He went on to perform the world’s first successful hand transplant on a 45-year-old called Clint Hallam.

It was not the public relations coup he had hoped for because Hallam had hidden the fact he had lost the hand in a circular-saw accident while in prison for fraud. Instead of resting and taking his medicine, Hallam blew $50,000 on another patient’s credit card and went on a string of US chat shows before eventually asking for the hand to be removed.

Prof Owen went on to help perform the world’s first successful double hand transplant in France. It was part of the pioneering work he resolved to do as a child in hospital.

He had been given too much radiation at birth to treat a tumour on his leg and his bones were weakened. They broke when he was 11.

“I lay flat on my back, tied to a bed all by myself in a dark underground room in a small local hospital for almost a year, enduring seven more painful, failed operations.

“I hated my surgeon and developed an unshakeable desire to become a different kind of doctor, one whose operations were so carefully planned and researched they would work the first time,” he wrote.

He went on to pioneer vasectomy reversal surgery.

Dr Christopher Lekich has carried on Prof Owen’s work at their practice in North Sydney.

“I had four years training under the microscope with him and I can say what an incredible doctor he was,” said Dr Lekich. “He had a cupboard full of awards but the only things he cared about were all those photographs of babies that were born because of his surgery,” said Dr Lekich.

But the medical researcher, classical music aficionado, poet, writer, photographer, inventor and ergonomic chair designer also had a few issues in his personal life.

Many questioned his larger-than-life stories.

“I heard those stories repeated over time and I can say they never grew,” said Dr Lekich. However he conceded that Prof Owen’s driven professional life may have impacted on his relationships at home.

“I never felt Earl was grandstanding, he had every right to however,” said Dr Lekich, who “marvelled” at how patients, who travelled all over the world for vasectomy reversals, felt comfortable and confident in his care.

After successful surgery and a subsequent baby, patients would often ask why their original doctor had not achieved the same result. Prof Owen would simply say: “They tried their best my dear”.

Prof Owen, who was 79 when he died, left two sons from his first marriage to his first wife Suzie, who predeceased him, and two daughters with second wife Sue. “It is quite clear that his family would have suffered because of his hard work ethic,” said Dr Lekich.

That work ethic took Prof Owen into many areas, including designing the chairs in Sydney Opera House — part of the surgeon’s lifelong connection to music.

Prof Earl was already friends with Vladimir Ashkenazy, the Russian-born concert pianist-conductor, when the musical maestro’s son was horribly injured in a waterskiing accident in the Greek Islands in 1979.

The Greek doctors wanted to amputate but the conductor called his friend and asked for help. His nine-year-old son was flown to Sydney for treatment.

“We worked on his leg for 10 hours … and rebuilt it. It was a world first. Nowadays we could chop the leg off and sew it back on again … you couldn’t do that back then,” Prof Owens told a newspaper afterwards. The operation was a success and the conductor staged a sell-out charity performance at the Opera House to say thank you.

Childhood friend Regina Lee said: “He had so much energy and drive for life. He wasn’t a humble man, but he really did actually have a lot to boast about.”

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Matthew Benns, 'Owen, Earl (1934–2014)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/owen-earl-27764/text35474, accessed 27 June 2022.

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