Trevor Wilson pays tribute to the life and work of Bruce Conolly — an Australian surgeon dedicated to helping the disabled in Myanmar.
William Bruce Conolly, AM FRCS FRACS FACS, 1 February 1935 — 21 February 2017
An impressive funeral was held in Sydney on 6 March, in the city’s oldest Anglican church, St James, for a special doctor who had found a new calling late in life helping disabled people in Myanmar.
Associate Professor Bruce Conolly was the driving force behind Sydney University Hospital’s world-renowned “Hand Unit”, the first of its kind in Australia, and for which he was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 1994. After his notional retirement from medical practice in 2013, Bruce Conolly and his wife Dr Joyce Conolly, set up the Myanmar Australia Conolly Foundation as a humanitarian organisation with the aim of improving medical education in Myanmar. Although they had both worked in a number of countries, they only made this special commitment for Myanmar.
Bruce and Joyce Conolly made regular visits to Myanmar from 2000, often with the support of Australian Rotary Clubs. As the Australian Ambassador in Myanmar at the time (2000-03), I had no hesitation in offering Bruce and Joyce whatever assistance I could. Both a practitioner and an educator, Bruce was in his element: giving lectures to Myanmar doctors and nurses, and carrying out informal consultations with Myanmar patients that helped the poor in remote villages who had no expectation of seeing any doctor. Bruce seemed to see this as reflecting the universality of his life mission. I also accompanied the Conollys on several trips, including a memorable visit to a leprosy treatment centre in Mawlamyine.
Bruce Conolly worked through the Myanmar Medical Association and the Myanmar Orthopaedic Society. His passion about the importance of “the hand” as the means for living, dignity and self-esteem, knew no bounds and transcended all barriers. One result was the strong empathy Bruce felt for ordinary Myanmar people suffering hand injuries. I still carry vivid images of watching Bruce, sometimes assisted by Joyce, giving his utmost for his Myanmar patients. Joyce told people at the funeral in Sydney that she only discovered the depth of Bruce’s Christian faith when – after many years of marriage – she realised he was deep in silent prayer praying for the recovery of a Myanmar hand surgery patient he had just met.
In Myanmar, Bruce Conolly over several years had a special relationship with Yangon General Hospital, where he donated significant books from his personal library just before his death. In 2014, he received a unique invitation to visit the new Magwe General Hospital in Central Magwe, soon after it was set up to be a medical education “hub” in central Myanmar. I understand that Bruce and Joyce were the only foreigners there. Since I had never visited Magwe, I could not advise him on what to expect, but this did not deter Bruce one bit.
Sport was always an important part of Bruce’s life and it also featured in his many visits to Myanmar. In the early 2000s I remember him playing squash and tennis at the Australian Club in Yangon with much younger players. The Conollys were also regular participants in the Myanmar Update Conference at the Australian National University in Canberra. Indeed, Bruce Conolly gave a presentation about Australian volunteer doctors providing capacity building in Myanmar medical programs to the 2007 conference.
Around 500 people, including leaders of Sydney’s medical community, were present at Bruce Conolly’s funeral service in the St James church designed by the famous Australian colonial architect, Francis Greenway. Mention was made during the funeral service of the special involvement that Bruce Conolly had with Myanmar. In private, Bruce Conolly was a deeply religious man, and this strengthened his determination to help others.
Trevor Wilson is a Visiting Fellow in the Department of Political and Social Change at the ANU Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, and a former Australian ambassador to Myanmar.