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Feb 02, 2014
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Under the Microscope, Professor Earl Owen

under-the-microscope (1)

The Story of an Australian Medical Pioneer. 

Published by Random House Australia

Can you imagine the type of person who one minute is developing instruments for use in microsurgery and the next is designing seats for the Sydney Opera House?

Earl Owen comes from a family of doctors on both sides of his family, but when he is born with a congenital abnormality, they allow him to be given doses of radiation, without realising the long term effects of radiation, particularly on a new born.

If you were to hear about an eleven-year-old boy, kept in isolation in a basement, only allowed to lay on his back, with minimal natural light from a tiny window above his head, you could be forgiven for thinking you were reading a horror story.  But this eleven-year-old is not in medical experiment camp, he is in fact enduring painful, mainly unsuccessful, operations to mend the bones he broke competing in a race at his school.  Why won’t the doctor’s answer his questions?

How does a boy who endured this treatment grow up?  In the case of Earl Owen, he promised himself that he will be a doctor who prevents another child suffering what he suffered.  His resolution is further hardened when a senior doctor tells a group of students, of which he is one, that the man they are examining has advanced cancer and will die soon, a diagnosis not previously shared with the patient.

Fast forward and this newly qualified doctor marries his Susie, moves to England and starts working at the Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH), probably the foremost hospital for Children in the world.  Little by little this man starts to fulfill his promise to himself.  He develops new techniques for operations, a new type of Microscope, eventually built by the Carl Zeiss company and even new instruments to operate on the tiny bodies of his patients (the traditional instruments are just too big, even those for eye surgery).

Fast forward again and back in Australia. Dr Owen successfully re-attaches part of a finger to the hand of a young boy, cut off when he and his mate were playing with a tomahawk. Hero time right?  Come on now this is Australia; tall poppy syndrome is alive and flourishing so the senior Surgeon who knows this operation cannot succeed, sacks him from the Children’s hospital in Sydney.

Many of the people who travel through Earl Owen’s world are well known and their part in his story is fairly and even lovingly told.  For a pioneer in microsurgery, this man tells a great story, with fulsome praise for and recognition of the people who move within his orbit, told to the background of classical music.  How did he come to design seats for the Sydney Opera House whilst also developing microsurgery techniques for in vitro operations?

Read the book, you will love it.  Random House Australia included Professor Earl Owen in their list of “The 14 Australians You Should Know” and Under the Microscope is my personal recommendation to you.

Thank you to Random House Australia and NetGalley for allowing me the privilege of reading a pre-publication copy of Under the Microscope.

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About the Author

earl-owen-picProfessor Earl Owen is known as one of the inventors of microsurgery and while he no longer operates himself, he remains involved in this specialist surgical practice. He was presented with an Order of Australia in 1980 for his pioneering work in microsurgery; was president of the International College of Surgeons from 1996-8 and has been honoured around the world for his achievements, including receiving the Legion d’honneur for services to French surgery in 2007.

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