Peter Alan Harbison 1929 - 2022

USANZ Member since 1965
USANZ President 1977-78

As the SA & NT representative on the USANZ Board of Directors, I have been asked to write a few passages about Peter Harbison who was a long-standing member of USANZ and served as President and ASM convenor in 1977. He was president of the SA section of the Urological Society of Australasia in 1976 and 1979 and also served as a Vice President of the Societe Internationale d’Urologie (SIU) during the 1970s. He was Examiner in Urology for the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (RACS) from 1974 -1980 and served on the Surgical Board of Urology in 1979.

Peter was aged in his early 90’s and so many of those who knew him well in his early life and during his time as a Urologist have predeceased him. A number of my senior, now retired, colleagues remember Peter as a dynamic personality who in his younger days was a strong athlete.

Born in Terowie SA, Peter grew up in Jamestown where he was Dux of the small country school. His father and grandfather were both doctors in the area. Following the unexpected death of his father in 1940, his family moved into a flat on Wellington Square in North Adelaide.  He commenced his secondary schooling at St Peters College where he excelled in both academia and sport winning the inaugural Opie Medal for best and fairest in the annual Intercollege football match against Prince Alfred College. He played high-level Australian Rules Football in the South Australian National Football League (SANFL) for the Sturt Football Club in 1954 and was selected to represent Australia at the Empire Games in the pole vault but failed to participate due to an unfortunate ankle injury.

Peter entered Adelaide University Medical School in 1947, graduating in 1952 with a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery then becoming a medical resident at Royal Adelaide Hospital, earning the princely sum of £7 per week. Peter subsequently worked at the Adelaide Children’s Hospital and for six months as the Government Medical Officer on Norfolk Island. In 1955 like many of his peers he sailed to the UK and obtained his FRCS in 1957. Peter then undertook another two years training specifically in urology with a year each in Bristol and the Institute of Urology in London. He then travelled to the USA for a fellowship year in 1960 specifically to become accomplished in the new Trans Urethral Resection of the Prostate technique. Whilst in LA he married Joan who he had met in the UK during his surgical fellowship training. Peter and Joan then returned to Adelaide in 1961 where they had four daughters over the next few years. 

Professionally Peter obtained his RACS Fellowship in 1963 and became the first urologist employed at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital (QEH) after Noel Bonnin’s retirement.  During this time he briefly worked at the Royal Adelaide and Repatriation general hospitals and both he and John Maddern introduced the TURP to replace open prostatectomy which was still performed by most General Surgeons. The “battle” was finally won in the 1970s with Urology established as a specialty in its own right. Peter whilst working at the QEH contracted Hepatitis B from a patient, became very ill, and did not work for five months. He was the second South Australian to obtain full membership of the Urological Society of Australasia in 1965. He worked in both Public and Private practice and was one of the leaders of South Australian Urology throughout the 1960s to 1980s. During his medical career, he continued his great interests in playing sport mainly tennis and golf at Royal Adelaide Golf Club, and as a side interest, breeding and racing thoroughbred horses with Joan.

Peter also owned a few boats, a large motorboat called Top Deck which he accidentally drove into the Rapid Bay Jetty one afternoon, and a “17-foot” runabout with a bright red hull that faded to burnt orange over time.  The Harbison family would use the red boat at their property on Hindmarsh Island spending many a day water skiing up and down the Murray River. He loved to go boating to catch King George whiting whether it be at Coffin Bay or Kangaroo Island and as per his competitive streak trying to outfish everyone by catching the most or, the largest fish of the day. 

I first met Mr. Harbison when I was a Basic Surgical Trainee working on the QEH Urology unit in 1985, John Bolt was in his first year as a Urology Trainee, and Geoffrey Burfield was the other visiting Consultant Urologist. Peter was like many surgeons of his vintage an imposing individual who demanded respect and hard work but was keen to allow trainees to learn and practice the craft of surgery. There were many stories about Peter’s clinical skills, knowledge and determination but more about how loyal he was to family and friends. He was an innovator during his time as the Head of Urology at the QEH and was the first urologist to perform Percutaneous Stone Surgery in Adelaide. The story (true or not) is when at an SIU meeting in the mid 1980’s he saw a number of presentations on PCNL and bought the display operative set from the trade representative on the final day, packed it in his luggage and began performing procedures shortly after his arrival home.  He looked out for his team members and organised an end of year social function at his home for all those who worked within the unit providing food, drinks and entertainment. After stepping down aged 60 as head of unit at the QEH in 1989 he left Adelaide and worked for a few years in Darwin co-convening a successful USANZ ASC meeting in Darwin and Kakadu National Park. After a short period working on the Gold Coast he finally retired in 1991 and enjoyed spending time with his family and friends, travelling, fishing, boating, playing golf, lawn bowls and drinking red wine.

He was well loved by his family and friends who I am sure would join those who knew him within the Urology Community in remembering Peter as a giant character in South Australian Urology who achieved much for all those who worked with him and have followed since.

To sum up I will finish with some further quotes made at his recent wake by his family and friends:

“Peter led a colourful life, fitting in many great achievements along the way and there was always great fun and memorable stories, sometimes slightly embellished by Peter.”  

“He was ambitious, strong willed, had an exceptionally strong work ethic and happy to provide an opinion on any topic.”

“He was generous, and enjoyed everyone’s company and always wanted to know how his daughters, grandkids and great-grandkids were doing.” 

Penny his daughter said about Peter “A Life Well Lived”.

This tribute was compiled from personal experience, discussions with those who worked with him, and from information provided by his family and in the “Joined Across the Water” USANZ publication.

USANZ thanks Dr John Miller for preparing this obituary.

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