Doug Baird was too young to die. I know that it is seemly to accept the irreversible fact of death. But in Doug’s case it is especially unacceptable. Sweet was his nature and notable his achievements. But his best years lay ahead. It is by the tragedy of his death that we, his family, friends and colleagues come together today to reflect upon his achievements. We honour and celebrate his life. But, inside, I rail against fate’s cruelty. And most of you will do so with me.
I first met Douglas Baird when we were both under-graduates of this University. As often happened, his outstanding intellectual gifts also propelled him into student politics. Formidable indeed, in those days, was the power of organised under-graduate medicine. I sat with Douglas on the Board of the Sydney University Union. True to his egalitarian ideals and the upbringing by his mother he played a leading role in the amalgamation of the Union and the Women’s Union. In the heady debates of student affairs and the tough factional deals common in those far-off days, we forged a friendship that endured through the decades which followed.
His First Class Honours B Sc (Med) and MB BS never went to his head. Yet he was proud of them. And he was deeply hurt when the University first awarded, and then withdrew, the University Medal from him allegedly for a miscalculation. When serving as Fellow of the Senate elected by the Under-graduates, I became his advocate in that cause, as well as his friend. It was to no avail. But that misfortune never warped Doug Baird’s view of the University. He loved this place. It is entirely fitting that we should meet here to remember him. This was a centrepoint of his life, this Great Hall.
After under-graduate days we kept in touch through a would-be “secret society” of ex-student politicians. For me, Douglas Baird never seemed to change. True, the advent of Phillipa and his children, joys of his life, expanded his personal zone from that provided by his loving parents. True his professional accomplishments enlarged his considerable intellectual life. True also his country honoured him for his services to medicine in Australia and overseas. But his basic simplicity of character and loving-kindness remained steadfastly the same, enduring all.
The Sydney University Medical Journal for 1967 describes him when he was President of the Sydney University Medical Society. The anonymous reviewer in that Journal captured some of the paradoxes of his life. He was “forceful but not inflexible”. A man of peace, he nevertheless worked in Vietnam with the Prince Alfred team at the time the review was written. And after surgery, he gave English lessons to local doctors and nurses. The reviewer commented:
“It is characteristic of Doug Baird to fill his time so completely. It is also characteristic of him to undertake something requiring such zeal.”
Ahead of his time, Douglas Baird was noted, even then, as a frequent traveller to Singapore, New Guinea and Vietnam as part of the development of his medical career. Later he was to add India, Malaysia and other lands of our region. He once told me that the heroic surgery into which he was suddenly thrust at an early age, in Vietnam refined, under almost unendurable pressure, his surgical skills which were to become legendary.
That commentator of nearly thirty years ago recorded that he played bad golf and worse squash and tennis. Wise was Doug Baird to turn to creative gardening. Even at the end, he and Phillipa were planning a new garden together.
The writer of 1967 observed that it had been said of him:
“It wouldn’t be Doug without a panic”.
I read that assessment with initial surprise. But then the memories of our youthful endeavours together came flooding back: his urgent interventions in meetings and his sheer determination, persistence and insistence. His panics were, I suspect, very strictly controlled. When action was needed, this was a most resourceful and talented professional man: swift of action and with a steely determination.
I want to speak here for the thousands and thousands of patients of Douglas Baird. When my mother suffered a heart attack a decade ago I contacted him. Within hours he had seen her, reassured her and within days he had operated upon her. I will never forget how, in the middle of the long operation, he came out to reassure my father and me that all was going well. He was a gentle surgeon. He never lost interest in his patients. He understood their anxieties and the fears of their families. What a model he was for the best of medical practice that our country can produce. It is wrong that he will not be there, living into old age to offer his example, his instruction and his inspiration.
But in the extended lives of the multitude of his patients, including my mother and thousands like her, is a love for him, and a gratitude, which is enduring and which I, their surrogate, express on their behalf.
I hope that somewhere in this University, which he loved and served so well, a permanent corner will be found for a fitting memorial to Douglas Baird. Let it be a place of instruction in the Medical Faculty to remind young students of the very best in kindness and skill that this great University can produce. Let it be in the University Union, as an encouragement to the future leaders of our country who sharpen their talents and develop their confidence in student affairs. Let it be in the great hospital associated with the University where, despite the frustrations, Douglas Baird worked in surgery and health administration at the very highest level. Let it be somewhere in the Senate room where he played his part in the governance of the University. Or perhaps in this Great Hall which thirty years ago first resounded to the applause of his high achievements, the promise of which he was to sustain and fulfil in full measure as long as he lived.
Or let it be in a garden of flowers that remind passers-by of a good man, a loving husband, son and father. A fine citizen. A true teacher. An exemplar of all that is best in a profession of faithful service to others.
So, we rage against the dying of the light that has seen Doug Baird taken from us prematurely, painfully and so unfairly. But we, his friends, his patients, his colleagues, the nurses and other staff who worked with him, his fellow citizens, and his family raise our voices in praise of him and all his works.
For every precious day of life that has been given to my family and to countless others, we say our humble thanks. Through those days of so many people and their loved ones, Doug Baird lives on. We are here to mourn him, to give thanks for his life, to praise his memory and to say that we will never forget him.
Memories of Doug Baird
By John Hill, patient of Prof. Doug Baird and Baird Institute Donor
Like many people my first introduction to Dr Baird was in an ICU ward. I was 37, waiting for a spot on the operation schedule for an emergency bypass operation. My father had passed away at 51 so my family were beside themselves with worry.
Doug Baird came in and without lessening the gravity of the situation gave such an air of obvious competence and composure. As long as I gave up smoking, he would proceed and everything would be OK!
It was Ok, I recovered fully and returned to family, friends and work a new man.
I came across Doug Baird in groups we both attended on the North Shore and was aware of his huge involvement with Sydney University where I am an alumnus. His passing at such a young age was a huge shock.
I had no idea of what he had achieved in so many areas until his memorial service. The Great Hall at Sydney University holds 600 people. It was packed. We are not talking here about a media celebrity or a politician, just an outstanding man who had affected so many people’s lives. Everyone had a story. The extraordinary eulogy from The Hon Michael Kirby really summed up the loss we all felt.
Many thousands of people now undergo heart surgery safely due to the pioneering work done by Doug Baird