Getting to know one another
By AMWA Member Dr George Biro
I came to Australia with my mother and stepfather from Hungary soon after World War Two. My aunt and uncle, who had been here for a decade, told us that the eccentric Aussies played football with a weird egg shaped ball; cricket was another novelty.
A common migrant goal was for kids to study medicine, which I duly did, setting aside a yearning towards journalism. After Medicine 1 at Sydney, we negotiated one year for me to indulge a leaning towards humanities. In Arts 1, I enjoyed Psychology, Economics and Modern History and writing for the student weekly Honi Soit.
In 1966, back in the medical stream, I joined the stream of Aussie graduates flocking to England for higher degrees. I was after a simple Diploma of Anaesthetics (DA). But our Brit colleagues insisted that DA stood for DREADFUL AUSTRALIANS. In turn, Aussies already there told us, if we wanted to pass, we should be sure to flaunt our return air tickets in clear view of all examiners.
We heard a little on the history of anaesthesia, especially John Snow of London (1813-1858). Quite apart from his inspired breakthrough on cholera, Snow became a leading anaesthetist and described his first ether inhaler in the Lancet. He also gave chloroform to a grateful Queen Victoria for two of her confinements.
Around the same time anesthetics were also taking off across the Atlantic with William Morton, Charles Jackson, Crawford Long and Horace Wells. But the Americans were a messy lot. One became addicted to chloroform. Wells gave a public demonstration of nitrous oxide (‘laughing gas’), which was a fiasco. He gave up dentistry and later committed suicide.
Why such a difference between the British scene and that in North America? Was the brain drain too steep? Had Britain exported too many people with inferior genes to the colonies?
Back to the 1960s; at The London Hospital in Whitechapel, on quiet evenings, the switch used to ring the local pub to get residents back on the job. Residents on night duty put out their shoes into the corridors for cleaning. Some hospitals would not let interns’ wives to stay over during their night shifts, but girlfriends were OK.
Back home, I worked as a GP/Anaesthetist in a group practice in Manly.
But the last few decades have been the best time of my career. It was my wife Kitty who encouraged me to work from home as a freelance medical writer. She even pounded my first pieces into an ancient preloved computer. Another bonus for staying home: our kids Andrew and Jackie bounced back home at times and we caught up with them.
A writer’s life is full of snakes and ladders. My very first editor looked at my very first article and told me nicely I must rewrite it and, moreover, the experience would even do me good!
A very basic question; what could I write about? The history of anaesthesia was an obvious start, but then what? I started on the history of infectious diseases, but feared I’d soon run out of diseases. How wrong can you be?
I ended up with a column on medical history in Australian Doctor and other bits and pieces; a very modest income.
After a chance meeting with Dr Jim Leavesley, the two of us joined forces with HarperCollins in Sydney to adapt some of our columns from Australian Doctor and publish three paperbacks of short, light pieces for general readers.
What excitement when HarperCollins took these to the huge publishing market at Frankfurt. Of course we hoped to get lucky and attract an overseas publisher. Indeed, one book was translated and sold in South Korea. Another was republished in Britain. But our ship really came home when all three books were combined and published as one E-book in the USA. What a market! What potential! Indeed, over two years, we sold nearly 30 copies and each earned $25 (Australian)!