South Australian Civilian Surgical Teams in Vietnam 1964 to 1972

From 1964 to 1972, Australia sent 24 teams of civilian nurses and surgeons to South Vietnam to assist civilian hospitals during the Vietnam war. Existing South Vietnamese nurses and doctors had largely joined the war efforts of the Republic Of Vietnam against the North Vietnamese, leaving civilian hospitals severely understaffed. In 1967, the first South Australian team of civilian nurses and surgeons departed Australia to work in the Bien Hoa Provincial Hospital, where they assisted the hospital staff, treated patients and provided valuable medical expertise and experience.

South Australian Civillian Medical Team Members, Vietnam 1967

South Australian Civillian Medical Team Members, Phase One, Vietnam 1967. Front left to right: Brian Cornish, John Quirk, Olga Nichols, Jenny Leak, Elizabeth Harvey, Aileen Monck, Josephine Griffin, John Barker, Margaret Bolton. Back: Douglas Townsend, Hugh Douglas, Mervyn Smith.

The civilian teams were organised as part of Australia’s contribution to the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation’s (SEATO) Civilian Surgical Medical Team programme. The civilian teams had three overall aims:

  • Show a diplomatic gesture by providing Australian aid to the Republic of Vietnam
  • Instruct Vietnamese medical and paramedical personnel
  • Provide care to any person who entered the hospital

In total, two teams of surgeons and nurses were dispatched from South Australian hospitals to Bien Hoa Provincial Hospital. For each team, the nurses stayed for a full six month duration, while the surgical staff were present for three months and were relieved by a second group of surgical staff until the full six month cycle was complete.

Surgeons and nurses operating in Bien Hoa, Vietnam 1967. Left to right: Elizabeth Harvey, Ex-Vietcong Doctor, Visiting Vietnamese anaesthetist, Mervyn Smith.

Surgeons and nurses operating in Bien Hoa, Vietnam 1967. Left to right: Elizabeth Harvey, Vietnamese Surgeon, Visiting Vietnamese anaesthetist, Royal Adelaide Hospital Surgeon and Team Leader Mervyn Smith.

The teams experienced adverse and challenging conditions in Bien Hoa, largely due to staff and supply shortages. Basic and essential medical equipment were in very short supply, the hospital experienced frequent power outages, and there was a considerably high number of patients entering the hospital. Approximately one third of the patient admissions was due to war related injuries, while the other two thirds were patients with injuries gained from everyday life in South Vietnam.

Mervyn Smith and Ex-Vietcong Doctor assisting in Thyroidectomy. Vietnam 1967

Mervyn Smith and Vietnamese Surgeon in theatre. Vietnam 1967

The Heritage Office of the Royal Adelaide Hospital currently holds several detailed first-hand accounts of the 1967 South Australian team and their experiences in Bien Hoa Provincial Hospital, written by the surgical and nursing team personnel. Please see below for links and resources to these items.

South Australian Civilian Nursing and Surgical Teams in Vietnam

South Australian Civilian Nursing and Surgical Team Members 1967

Surgical Staff group, first phase (April 1967 till June 1967)

  • Mervyn Smith – Surgeon
  • Brian Cornish – Surgeon
  • Hugh Douglas – Paediatrician & physician
  • John Barker – Anaesthetist

Surgical Staff group, second phase ( July 1967 till October 1967)

  • Graham Wilson – Surgeon
  • Rod White – Surgeon
  • Peter Last – Physician
  • Tom Allen – Anaesthetist

Nursing, Medical and Administration (April 1967 till October 1967)

  • Douglas Townsend – Senior Surgical Registrar
  • John Quirk – Radiographer
  • Olga Nichols – Theatre Sister
  • Margaret Bolton – Theatre Sister
  • Elizabeth Harvey – Theatre Sister
  • Jenny Leak – Theatre Sister
  • Josephine Griffin – Ward Sister
  • Aileen Monck – Ward Sister
  • Phil Nurcombe – Administration


  • McKay, Gary. & Stewart, Elizabeth., “With healing hands : the untold story of the Australian civilian surgical teams in Vietnam”, Allen &​ Unwin, 2009.
  • Australian Civilian Nurses as Vietnam Veterans , October 2014.
  • James, Tony. & Bowes, Ray., “Australian Surgical Team – Vietnam”, 2012.
Posted in Courage and Compassion - War and Peace, Histories