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Combined art and science of medicine

26-7-1935 — 8-10-2012

WITH the death of Dr Allen Yung, Australia has lost a compassionate physician, a dedicated teacher and a much-admired role model. He died peacefully at his home in Melbourne aged 77, after a remarkable life.

Allen was born in Beijing and as a child became a refugee, escaping with his family first from the invading Japanese army and then from the advance of the communist forces. The family travelled by any means possible, including by foot, rickshaw, bicycle and donkey. Allen even recalled being carried in a basket. Together with his parents and two siblings, he eventually found safety in Singapore.

In 1952 he was sent to Australia for his secondary education and attended the Friends' School in Hobart. Despite arriving with barely a word of English, within two years he was awarded a place at the University of Melbourne to study medicine. Here he complemented his medical studies with many discussions about philosophy and religion with friends at Queen's College.

After graduating in 1960, he worked at the Royal Melbourne Hospital and the Royal Children's Hospital before joining Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital in 1964. Here his lifelong passion for infectious diseases began and flourished.

Allen married Gillian Barber, a trained nurse and midwife, in 1961. This was despite objections from both sets of parents, who vehemently opposed their inter-racial relationship.

Allen worked at Fairfield for 32 years until its untimely closure in 1996. By then he was chief of medicine and dean of the clinical school at Fairfield for the University of Melbourne and Monash University.


During his time at Fairfield Hospital, Allen saw it evolve from a "fever hospital" that protected the community by isolating patients with contagious diseases, to an internationally recognised centre of clinical care, education and research. For more than 30 years it was the cradle for the training of infectious-disease physicians.

Fairfield's achievements included the establishment of the Macfarlane Burnet Centre for Medical Research. Another was the speed with which it responded to an epidemic of a totally new infection — HIV/AIDS — and established a service equal to any in the world. Throughout these developments Allen ensured that those at Fairfield lived by these principles: that patients should be respected; that medical, nursing, allied health and laboratory staff are partners, and must work as a team; that the hospital needs to be always ready for new infectious diseases; and the importance of lifelong learning.

Allen's clinical skills, care for his patients, and interest in the education and welfare of students and junior doctors profoundly influenced generations of physicians. He was a role model as a diagnostician, mentor, author, philosopher and humanitarian.

One of the most important things he taught was how to listen to a patient. Through his kind and gentle manner, and seemingly infinite patience, he was often able to gain information that proved important in coming to a diagnosis. Even if little could be done for a person, Allen believed that every patient should feel better after an encounter with their doctor. One of his favourite sayings was: "The secret of the care of the patient is in caring for the patient."

However, he was more than a compassionate doctor and a good listener. He mulled over facts gleaned from patients' stories and findings from examinations and laboratory tests, and compared them with similar cases he had seen or read about. He was constantly learning from his patients and adding to his knowledge, thus combining the art and science of medicine.

In 1993 Allen was only the second to be elected a life member of the Australasian Society for Infectious Diseases. On Fairfield Hospital's closure in 1996 he was the subject of an article in The Age by Martin Flanagan, in which he was described as "intellectually and spiritually uplifting". In 1997 he was a finalist in the Victorian of the Year awards, and in the same year won the Australian Chinese Achievers Award in Medicine. The following year he was awarded the medal of the Order of Australia for services to medicine. Despite these awards and his many accomplishments, he remained humble, and always described feeling "acutely embarrassed" when he received such attention.

After Fairfield's closure in 1996, Allen moved back to the Royal Melbourne Hospital, and in 2003 retired from clinical practice. He continued to attend infectious diseases meetings at the hospital and was still regularly contacted by colleagues for help in diagnosing and managing patients, even after his terminal illness began in 2011.

In addition to his passion for medicine and teaching, Allen read extensively on philosophy, ethics and morality. He believed in the importance of honesty and being true to oneself, and that all people should be treated with respect and consideration. He never judged a patient by their illness or how they acquired it.

Allen was nursed throughout his illness by his beloved wife of 51 years, Gillian. He is survived by her, his three children and five grandchildren.

Alison Yung, professor of psychiatry at the University of Manchester and the University of Melbourne, is Allen Yung's daughter.