The State Funeral Service for Sir Edward “Weary” Dunlop

St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral, Melbourne

Monday 12 July 1993.

Eulogy by the Rt. Hon Sir Ninian Stephen

Gathered here today to pay tribute to Sir Edward Dunlop are not only his family, close friends and old comrades but the Australian nation itself, represented by the Prime -Minister and the Leader of the Opposition and representatives of the Governor-General and of the Governor of Victoria.   Here too are the acting Premier of Victoria, presiding officers of Parliaments and representatives of the judiciary together with representatives  of  associations and   institutions Australia-wide;   and   the ambassadors and consuls of many nations overseas.   All are here to pay tribute to Sir Edward, to express their sorrow at his passing, their deep respect for the man, their high admiration for his achievements and their sense of loss in his death.    In doing so they represent the feelings of the millions of Australians and of countless admirers overseas.

Sir Edward’s family and his close friends mourn him privately and in their hearts; their great loss is intensely personal and no State Funeral can attest that loss or adequately mark for them his passing.    But by this Service the whole nation mourns.


In this present age there is a dearth of heroes.  And it is as a hero that we remember Weary Dunlop.   He was virtuous, kind and immensely brave, utterly steadfast in the path of duty and invincible in his courage.   We remember him not simply as the doer of some single deed of great bravery but as an immensely valiant human being who for years on end was consistently courageous under terrible stress, his sense of duty unshakable and his compassion for his fellow men unfailing.

Having dedicated his life to the healing of others, he found  himself tested as few have been before him.   A prisoner among  prisoners, all despised and all sought to be humiliated by  their captors, he rejected humiliation.  Through sheer  nobility of character, strength of purpose and strength of  body too,   he survived torture and vile treatment to continue  his care for his men, caring for their disease-racked bodies, inspiring them with hope when hope was faint and with human  dignity and self respect when all outward dignity seemed gone  and respect for self was sought to be starved and beaten out  of them.  As Laurens van der Post has written, he was both the inspiration and the main instrument of his men’s physical and spiritual survival.

Those of us who have in our lives been spared the extremes of brutality, starvation, disease and near-terminal exhaustion that he knew and, still worse, that he saw being suffered by those under his command and in his care, we can only speculate on the despair to be overcome and the suffering to be endured by those Australian prisoners-of-war.  We can only marvel at them, and at him, asking ourselves how we would have fared had we been one of them and knowing that, lacking the rare heroic qualities of Weary Dunlop, we might have survived but could never have quietly triumphed as Weary did.

For all his life was a quiet triumph.  In every test he put himself to, he passed; every task he set himself he fulfilled.  As sportsman on the rugby field, as boxer in the ring, as surgeon, as soldier, as loving husband and father and as honoured friend to every man.

With perhaps only Douglas Mawson, of all Australians,   he shares a lone eminence of sustained heroism and superb achievement.

His long life was an inspiration to us all.   In death the inspiration remains inspiring us to try as best we may to follow his example of courageous and unflagging nobility.

Bitterness never entered his soul, for he knew its corroding influence and forthrightly rejected it.   Instead he gathered the strength to feel Christian forgiveness of the enemy, that coming to him, he said, at war’s end when, seeing a wounded Japanese soldier slumped down on the floor of a railway truck full of Japanese prisoners and apparently in danger of being crushed he went to help him up.    Weary took him by the shoulders to lift him, only to find him dead.  With that all hatred of the enemy died too.

His life was filled with achievements, a glance at Who’s Who astonishes one, yet unaffected modesty and gentle good humour were always his traits.  Innumerable honours were his, bestowed on him by governments, by professional colleagues, by universities here and overseas, by learned societies, by service clubs, by cities and whole communities and, of course, by his old comrades,  ex-servicemen and former prisoners of war, many of whom feel that they owe their lives to him.

A country boy, he was born on his father’s farm near  Stewarton, out of Benalla, went to Stewarton primary and then  to Benalla High.   Tall, raw-boned and shy, a good scholar, he was apprenticed to a pharmacist in Benalla, began his  pharmacy course and topped his first year.   Then he moved to  Melbourne and there completed his course while working for a  pharmacist in Melbourne.   He was Gold Medalist in Pharmacy in his final year.

Then, inspired by the example of Sir Thomas Dunhill, who had also begun life as an apprentice pharmacist and lived to become surgeon to king George V, he too determined to become a surgeon, enrolled in Melbourne University’s Medical School and gained a scholarship to Ormond College.   But he knew no Latin, then a prerequisite for medicine, and in six months cramming at Taylor’s night classes learnt his Latin while at the same time studying medicine.

A brilliant student, he had an extraordinary memory, which did not fade with age.   He loved poetry, especially Tennyson and the romantics and could, and did, in the most unlikely places and  at  the  most unlikely  times,  recite  faultlessly whole cantos and long passages from Shakespeare.    He was also a great sportsman in the boxing ring and on  the football field; first, as a schoolboy,  playing Australian rules and then, at Ormond,  where he was introduced to Rugby and soon was an international,  playing  for  Australia  with  the  Wallabies. Ironically,  his  studies  prevented  him  from  joining  the Wallabies in their tour of Japan.

On graduation, he served at The Royal Melbourne Hospital for some years, then, to gain his fellowship, sailed to England as Ship’s surgeon, worked at St. Bartholomew’s hospital, took his London FRCS at first attempt and in 1939  was working at Hammersmith Post Graduate Medical School,  until,   with war looming,  he  was  posted  to  St.  Mary’s,  Paddington  as  a specialist surgeon to the emergency medical service under Lord Poritt.

To this point all seemed set on a civilian career of high achievement as a surgeon.      However, before the war, he had been,  in  turn an  enthusiastic  cadet and  a  citizen  forces volunteer attending annual camps and had been commissioned inThe Royal Australian Army Medical Corps after completing his medical course.    When war was declared he was determined to serve with the A.I.F. and, with a deal of wangling, managed a unique enlistment through Australia House London.  He was more successful in enlisting at Australian House than being outfitted there; no up to date Australian uniforms were on offer  and he had to make do with a World War I Digger hat,  emu  feathers  and  all  and  a  generally  rather picturesque  if  antique,  Light  Horse  uniform, to the delight of passing Londoners in the Strand, until he could  buy more orthodox gear.  He embarked, on new Years Eve 1940, for the Middle East as Captain Dunlop VX 259.  There he served as Medical Officer with the A.I.F until the Balkan campaign took them  and him to Greece.    He was medical liaison officer between the Australian  forces  and  the  British  throughout  the  Greek Campaign, much of it astride his motor bike between the Australian front   line and  Athens,  bearing  unofficial   military intelligence as well as medical liaison details.

In the retreat south to the Peloponnese he narrowly evaded  German paratroopers at Corinth and was finally evacuated to  Crete where, after further hardships and danger, he was again  evacuated, this time  to Egypt.   He arrived, ragged and sick with  hepatitis,  was  hospitalized and,  impatient to serve,  deserted his hospital bed against medical orders,  leaving a note on his pillow reading  “Sorry – gone to Tobruk”, which he did, being ferried in by destroyer to the beleaguered town and joining the 2/2 CCS there, living in a cave and caring for the men of the 6th division.

Then after further service  in  Egypt  and Palestine  and  with Japan now  in the war and threatening south east Asia,  he sailed for Sumatra and Java with the 2/2 CCS, which was to form  the  nucleus  of  the  1st  Allied  General  Hospital  at Bandung.  There he was promoted Lieutenant Colonel.

Singapore  had  fallen  and  in  the  chaos  of  the  time  he brilliantly organised a working general hospital in Bandung.  In march the Dutch forces in Java capitulated and thus began Weary’s almost three years of captivity.

It was as if all his life to that point  had been lived so as to prepare him for his new role.   His great physical strength and fitness, his training as a surgeon, his knowledge of men, his ability to lead and inspire others to follow to deal with his captors and to organise the foul, disease ridden camps the Australians found themselves in:   all this his thirty three years of life had taught him.   That and much more; a love of humanity, an ability to suffer appalling hardship yet never swerve from the path of duty towards others, a soundness of judgment and decisiveness of action combined with an unfailing sense of humour and deep compassion.   These qualities he took with  him  to  the  hells  of  prison  camps  and  there  saved countless lives.

In Java he had been promoted full Colonel but he did not assume that rank as it would have risked separation from his men.  Instead he stayed with them, serving both as C.O. and as Medical Officer at prisoner-of-war camps   both  in Java and  later, in Changi until sent to Thailand to labour on the Burma  Railway, in charge of some one thousand men.     He was at one and the same time their commanding officer,  fighting every inch of the way with brutal captors for his men’s rights and indeed for their very survival and this at constant risk of his own life, and also their doctor, sharing with two other heroic medicos their medical care.   And all the while,  in common with his men, systematically  humiliated and inhumanly abused.

The unbelievable horror of those times lives in the pages of Weary  Dunlop’s  prisoner-of-war diaries,  the  deaths,  the  beatings,  the  starvation,  the  sheer  inhumanity  of  it.

Throughout   he was an inspiration to all,  his own suffering  ignored  in  the  service  of  others.

I can’t  attempt  to  describe the experiences of those times; nor should I, only  those who endured them, those whom Weary wrote of as part of  “the timeless,  enduring,  special brotherhood shared  by all survivors of prison camps”, many of them here at this service today,  know  and  fully  comprehend  that  experience.      The diaries tell it all; and the tales of these survivors  are the best testimony to the heroism of this man.   Those diaries he wrote as a military duty, never intending publication and for over  forty  years  they  remained  unpublished  until  he  was persuaded that they should at last see the light of day.

He  was  a  legend  already  on his  return  at  war’s  end  to Australia and to home.  His sweetheart of many years, Helen Ferguson, he married very soon after his return and their long and happy marriage, blessed by two sons, ended tragically with Helen’s death in 1988 after a long illness lightened by their love for each other and by Weary’s devotion to Helen.

His career after the war was that of a great and gifted surgeon in an extraordinarily busy practice, interrupted only by service in Vietnam, leading a surgical team.  With his practice he managed to combine continuing and devoted care and concern for all his comrades of the camps and their families and an expanding interest in Asia.  Through his friend Richard Casey he played an active part in the development of Australia’s role in the Colombo plan.  He lectured, taught and operated in Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and India.

Here at home in Melbourne he was active over a vast range of community activities and organisations, all the way from a host of ex-serviceman’s associations to the Anti-Cancer  Council and the Council for Overseas Student.  I knew him as a member of the Melbourne Scots, he was very proud of his Scottish ancestry and very dashing he looked in his eighties in kilt and green velvet dress jacket, with an elegant flourish of lace at neck and wrists; others knew him as a Rotarian, as a Lion, as a distinguished Fellow Colleges of Surgeons in many lands, as the patron or honoured member of almost every Australian association having links with Asia and of course as an  eminent consultant  surgeon at the  Royal Melbourne and other of the great hospitals of this state.  There was little that was for the welfare of Australians in which he was not active.

He was  loved and respected at a distance by millions and intimately by his family and those fortunate enough to be his dear friends, themselves many thousands at home and overseas.

It is lives such as his that teach us that man can aspire to and achieve true nobleness of character and by doing so can inspire us all;   Weary Dunlop would have been surprised to hear himself described as saintly, but to many his dedication to all that was good and his own sheer nobility of character seemed saintly,.  They set him apart,  although he would have laughed and gently teased whoever told him that.

His death does not leave us the poorer, instead because it concentrates our thoughts on him and on his life and example we are enriched and inspired.    If we cannot emulate him  his cheat gifts of mind and of character eluding us, we can at least try to guide our actions by the pre-eminent standards that he made his own and by which we will remember him.



    1. Probably his closest friend was Rowan Nicks who sadly passed away earlier this year. He was the first founding full-time Cardiothoracic Surgeon appointed to Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in 1956. Rowan designed the first automatic pacemaker and was a member of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons.

    1. His eldest son is Alexander and his younger son is John. His grandsons are John and Andrew and his granddaughter is Isabelle.

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