Remembering Dr Stephen Swallow

Stephen Swallow Mt Aspring

Stephen Keith Swallow 15/5/1957 – 15/8/2014

Family, friends and colleagues were saddened by the recent death of Australian Anaesthetist Dr Stephen Swallow. He will be missed by many.

Stephen went to school in Liverpool, England and attended Medical School in Cambridge, with his clinical years spent at the Middlesex Hospital Medical School in London. After two weeks in General Practice, Stephen’s career was decided and he sought anaesthesia training at the University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff.

As with so many UK trained anaesthetists, Stephen found his way to the Antipodes, firstly to the Department of Anaesthetics in Dunedin New Zealand where he obtained his FANZCA and then to take up a Staff Specialist position in Townsville. Stephen always spoke highly of his time in the Dunedin department under Professor Barry Baker and Townsville with the charismatic leadership of Vic Callahan.

But it was in Tasmania where Stephen was to spend the majority of his professional career, firstly in Launceston and then from 1999 at the Royal Hobart Hospital. His contribution to medicine and anaesthesia was remarkable. Stephen often boasted of excelling as an underachiever. This could not be further from the truth. His was a sharp intellect that would not tolerate fools. He expected more from his professional world than most ordinary mortals could give. But Stephen was equally exacting of himself. His long history of service in teaching hospitals saw many cohorts of trainee anaesthethetists benefit from his teaching and his unique view of the medical model, and the bigger world around it. His consultant work in Townsville, Launceston and Hobart covered a breadth of domains from Intensive Care to Neuroanaesthesia as well as all the more mundane service duties of large public hospitals.

It was in his extra curricular activities that Stephen really excelled. Whether it was mountaineering in Nepal, competing in International Frisbee competitions, or teaching on Early Management of Severe Trauma (EMST) courses, Stephen was always conspicuous by his contributions. He was an early member of the Primary Trauma Care (PTC) movement, which spread into over 60 countries around the world. Stephen co authored the PTC Instructor Manual and through his teaching trips helped develop trauma management in Mongolia, Myanmar and China. He had tremendous understanding for those of different backgrounds and would always trust the local coordinators. This made him an excellent PTC instructor and program manager.

He had the ability to calmly diffuse tense situations – on a PTC trip to the Solomon Islands in 1999 he found himself in the middle of a significant disturbance in the main market in Honiara. In spite of only arriving the previous day he deftly negotiated safe passage through the riot using local politics and rugby as the discussion points.

He was an active member of the Australian Society of Anaesthetists (ASA) Overseas Development and Education Committee and took seed money for a PTC China project which subsequently was developed to become an enormously successful project training over 25,000 Chinese doctors on 1,250 PTC courses. He chaired one of the ANZCA/NZSA/ASA’s Special Interest Groups (the Neuro SIG) as well as inaugurating the Royal Hobart Hospital’s Global Outreach.

Stephen’s outdoor adventures took him far and wide. From Federation Peak in South West Tasmania to the Annapurna Circuit in the Himalayas. With his daughter Stephanie he visited Machu Picchu in Peru, the volcanic mountain Cotopaxi in Ecuador, and the Galápagos Islands. With his son Oliver he travelled to Mongolia for a horse back expedition into the mountains. He returned to New Zealand on several occasions for mountaineering and ice climbing including summiting Mt Aspiring and traversing the Olivine Ice Plateau. Often whilst perched on a summit or anchored to the side of an ice cliff he would remove a piece of paper from his jacket and recite a poem relevant to the moment. In the tent in the evenings following a day’s climbing with fellow mountaineers and guides, he would lead discussions on a wide variety of subjects whilst giving commentary on a single malt whiskey or a red wine he’d carried in and shared. He was a true Renaissance man.

Stephen was always a stimulating colleague both in and out of the operating theatre. And it was a real pleasure to work with him on his overseas teaching trips. His hands off the wheel approach to life seemed to work well in Mongolia and he returned to Ulaanbaatar many times. Was he possibly looking for his ancestry in the turbulent history of the great Ghengis Khan?

Stephen made enduring friends everywhere he worked from the UK, Hong Kong, China, the Pacific and Australia.

His career was tragically shortened and Stephen’s last years as an anaesthetist were not without their difficulties. The medical future he had foretold for himself unfortunately came to pass. He bore his infirmities with dignity and equanimity. He sought refuge in his various many alter egos, as writer, poet, cook, and social commentator.

Many will have their own stories of Stephen Swallow. We celebrate his life, we give thanks for his friendship and we treasure the opportunity to have shared some of life’s mystery with this remarkable man. He has left behind his partner Angela and two children, Oliver and Stephanie, who will be his ongoing spirit. But in fact everyone who knew him will carry a little bit of Stephen with them.

We mourn his passing, but we are richer from having known him.

Vale Stephen.

John Madden FANZCA, Calvary Hospital, Tasmania

Rob McDougall FANZCA, Royal Children’s Hospital, Victoria

Haydn Perndt AM FANZCA, Royal Hobart Hospital, Tasmania



  1. RIP Steve. I haven’t seen you for too many years but remember well the weekend Frisbee tournament in Cambridge at the end of the seventies. I’m so glad you had a good life. Nick Way

  2. What a wonderful tribute to a wonderful man. I knew Steve over the many years that we shared on the Overseas Aid Subcommittee of the Australian Society of Anaesthetists ( now the Overseas Development and Education Committee). I did not know much about his private life until reading this moving obituary, but I do wish to echo and reinforce the comments made by Rob McDougall and Haydn Perndt. His contribution to the development and promotion of Primary Trauma Care teaching was enormous, and has without doubt contributed materially to decreasing mortality and morbidity from trauma in many countries. On a personal level he was a thoughtful and intelligent man and a great contributor to our committee. We will miss him greatly.
    Steve Kinnear
    Anaesthetist, Adelaide, South Australia

  3. It’s been an honour to have known Stephen, from my time in Hobart in 1999 and 2001/2. He was a good friendly colleague and we shared good times on the tennis court. He will not be forgotten…

  4. I have just read this, with great sadness. I knew Stephen when he joined my year as a fellow medical student at The Middlesex, in 1978, and remember playing tennis together on the court at The Central Middlesex Hospital in Acton.
    Can I ask what was the illness that he had predicted for himself?
    What a beautiful obituary and what an amazing life.

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