Dr Bruce Conolly, who healed hands in Myanmar

The funeral was held in Sydney on March 6 for a dedicated Australian surgeon who found a new calling late in life helping disabled people in Myanmar.


ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR Dr William Bruce Conolly, who died on February 21 aged 82, was the driving force behind Sydney University Hospital’s world-renowned “Hand Unit”, the first of its kind in Australia, for which he received his country’s highest civilian honour 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.

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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 said 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 Magway General Hospital, 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 Magway, 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. Bruce Conolly gave a presentation at the 2007 conference about Australian volunteer doctors providing capacity building in Myanmar medical programs.

Mention was made during the funeral service of the special involvement that Bruce Conolly had with Myanmar. In private, he was a deeply religious man, and this strengthened his determination to help others.

This article was originally published by New Mandala and has been re-printed here with the author’s permission.

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