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Sunderland, Sydney (1910 - 1993)

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Anatomist, Neuroscientist, Educator and Dean
Born: 31 December 1910  Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.  Died: 1993.

Sydney Sunderland graduated in medicine from the University of Melbourne and lectured in Anatomy for several years before becoming Professor of Anatomy (1940-61) and of Experimental Neurology (1961-75).

He was also Dean of the Faculty of Medicine from 1953 to 1971 (with the exception of a period during 1953-54 when he was Visiting Professor of Anatomy at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine at Baltimore). He represented the Professors on the University Council from 1951-67.

During his time as Dean he was an important influence on the development of the complex of medical buildings at the corner of Grattan St. and Royal Parade, Parkville in the 1960s. He also oversaw the establishment of clinical sciences buildings at the major teaching hospitals, the establishment of a Clinical School at the Austin Hospital, and an increased provision for professorial positions within the Faculty of Medicine.

In 1976 he was elected Emeritus Professor.

Image source: Records of the Australian Academy of Science, 11,1, 1996, p52.

Career Highlights

After completing first year science at the University of Queensland as top student, Sydney Sunderland moved south in 1931 to embark on an illustrious career in medicine at the University of Melbourne. Immediately after completing his degree in 1935, again as top student, the Professor of Anatomy, Frederic Wood Jones, offered him the position of Senior Lecturer in Anatomy. Sunderland held the position for two years, while at the same time working as Honorary Assistant Neurologist and Assistant Neurosurgeon at the Alfred Hospital.

Sunderland's interests in neurology were stimulated by the Head Neurologist at the Alfred, Leonard Cox, and by Wood Jones. According to a memoir of Sunderland by Ian Darian-Smith, these two senior colleagues "guided Sunderland's interests towards neurology and greased the tracks for his career with a breathtaking directness".

When Wood Jones left Melbourne for Manchester at the end of 1937, so too did Sunderland, moving to Oxford University where he was employed as Demonstrator in the Department of Human Anatomy. While at Oxford he continued his research on the nervous system under the leadership of renowned comparative anatomist, Professor W. Le Gros Clark. Although Sunderland and Le Gros Clark did not warm to each other, Sunderland completed four journal articles on the cerebral cortex during his time at Oxford.

In July 1938 at the age of 27, Sunderland was offered, and accepted, the position of Professor of Anatomy at the University of Melbourne. He arranged to take up his professorial duties early in 1940 so that he could complete his research at Oxford and tour leading North American neuroanatomical laboratories. This proved a telling decision, as his overseas experience helped to equip him with knowledge of the latest techniques in observational and experimental neuroanatomy. For example, while at Oxford he was introduced to various novel silver staining techniques developed in Spain to enable visualisation of the fine structure of neurons and glial cells. And in North America he was exposed to the innovative work of Wilber Penfield at the Montreal Neurological Institute on the functional organisation of the human cerebral cortex, work for which Penfield was later awarded a Nobel Prize and the Order of Merit. Penfield developed the technique of identifying and mapping regions of the cortex directly involved in limb movement and sensory perception while operating on conscious patients with brain tumours under local anaesthesia. It was then possible to resect brain tissue with the prospect of causing minimal sensorimotor disability.

Sunderland used this approach in developing ways to treat World War II patients with penetrating limb injuries while serving as a visiting consultant at the 115 Australian General Hospital, Heidelberg, Victoria. Australian servicemen who had sustained chronic nerve injuries were sent to his Peripheral Nerve Injuries Unit where they were followed up for many years. As a result of the long-term follow-up Sunderland recognised and wrote about the complex biology of the peripheral nerves and the importance of their blood supply and surrounding connective tissue. According to Darian-Smith, Sunderland's studies clearly showed "that the full restoration of muscle function following interruption of its nerve supply depends on much more than the simple re-establishment of neuromuscular continuity . . . Comparable studies of cutaneous nerves emphasized the complexity of sensory innervation and the myriad factors which determine the recovery of cutaneous sensibility following nerve injury". Sunderland recognised five stages of peripheral nerve damage, each of which could be recognised clinically and could provide some guidance to prognosis and clinical management.

In 1961 the University of Melbourne recognised his considerable research achievements by appointing him to a new Chair in Experimental Neurology. In this position, he continued his great love of research on the peripheral nervous system up to and after his retirement in 1975. In the early 1980s, as a tribute to his work, the International Peripheral Nerve Study Group re-named itself The Sunderland Society.

From 1953 to 1971 Sunderland was Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, a period which included the construction of the new medical school complex for teaching and research at the corner of Grattan St and Royal Parade. He was also involved in the development of clinical sciences buildings at each of the teaching hospitals affiliated with the University and with the establishment of an additional clinical school at the Austin Hospital. The focus on clinical skills was further emphasised with the establishment of a number of new chairs, increasing the number from six to 24, most of which were in the clinical departments.

Sunderland was active both within and outside the university. He represented the Professors during a long stint on the University of Melbourne Council. He was also a member of the National Health and Medical Research Council's (NHMRC's) Medical Research Advisory Committee from 1953 to 1969 and its chairman from 1964 to 1969. In addition, he was the longest-serving member off the Australian Universities Commission, serving on it from 1962 to 1976 , a member of the Medical Advisory Committee to the Mental Hygiene Authority of Victoria from 1952 to 1963 and Chairman of the National Radiation Advisory Committee from 1951 to 1964.

In yet another role, Sunderland played an important part in the early development of the Australian Academy of Science. He was a Foundation Fellow and one of the members who drafted its bye-laws and deliberated on its striking Roy Grounds-designed building in Canberra. Other significant activities included his long spells on the Committee of Management of the Royal Melbourne Hospital, the Board of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research and on the Ian Potter Foundation.

"Sir Sydney Sunderland walked the corridors of power for the greater part of his long professional career. In spite of this he remained a genuinely attractive man, shrewd but both generous and optimistic in his judgment of others. He was an enthusiast and could quickly become excited by new experimental findings of his colleagues . . . Furthermore, everyone in our laboratory, from student to professor, could be sure of being taken seriously by Sir Sydney in any such discussion. For this alone he gained their lasting respect and affection. - Ian Darian Smith, Sydney Sunderland, Historical Records of Australian Science 11, 1, 1996, pp 51-65.


Starts medicine at the University of Melbourne.


Passes the Primary Fellowship Examination of the Royal College of Surgeons (London) a year before graduating in medicine.


Graduates MB BS from the University of Melbourne having been awarded the Exhibition and Dwight Prize in Anatomy, the Jamieson Prize in Clinical Medicine, the Keith Levi Scholarship, and the Fulton Scholarship in Obstetrics and Gynaecology.

1935 - 1937

Senior Lecturer in Anatomy and Honorary Assistant Neurologist at the Alfred Hospital.

1940 - 1961

Professor of Anatomy, the University of Melbourne.

1953 - 1971

Dean of the Faculty of Medicine.

1957 - 1975

Member of the Defence Research and Development Policy Committee, Department of Defence.

1957 - 1978

Member, Defence Medical Services Committee, Department of Defence.

1959 - 1964

Chairman, National Radiation Advisory Committee.

1960 - 1968

Member, Victorian State Council, Australian Medical Association.

1961 - 1975

Professor of Experimental Neurology, the University of Melbourne.

1962 - 1976

Member, Australian Universities Commission.

1963 - 1971

Member, Committee of Management, Royal Melbourne Hospital.

1964 - 1969

Chairman, Medical Research Advisory Committee of the National Health and Medical Research Council.

1964 - 1993

Governor, Ian Potter Foundation.


Publication of the first edition of his book, Nerves and Nerve Injuries. A second edition was published in 1978.

1968 - 1975

Member of Board of Management, Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research.

1972 - 1978

Fogarty Scholar in Residence, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland, USA

1972 - 1993

Member, Howard Florey Institute of Experimental Physiology and Medicine.

1976 - 1993

Professor Emeritus, the University of Melbourne.


Appointed Founders Lecturer of the American Society for Surgery of the Hand.


Described as a "Pioneer in the Field of Hand Surgery" at an international meeting in Tokyo.


Publication of Nerve Injuries and Their Repair.

Related Entries for Sunderland, Sydney

Professorial Chair

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Structure based on ISAAR(CPF) - click here for an explanation of the fields.Prepared by: Ann Westmore
Created: 2 July 2002
Modified: 23 May 2005

Published by Centre for the Study of Health and Society, 8 September 2003
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Prepared by: Acknowledgements
Updated: 12 January 2009

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