Reading Down Under

20 Years as a Police Surgeon by John Birrell

My first Australian biography is a bit of a wild card as it has almost no biographical elements. John Birrell manages to sum up his entire life before becoming Melbourne’s first police surgeon in seven pages and there are no descriptions of his personal life past his proposal to his wife Jackie in 1947. What Birrell really wishes to cover (and manages to, in great detail) is his great passion for road safety and the protection of children from abuse.

The chapters all cover in surprising depth the problems he faced in the work force, all of which contributed to unnecessary deaths that he saw on a day-to-day basis: the complete lack of car restraints such as seat belts, the unseen correlation between alcohol and road accidents, the skepticism of breathalyzers and the view of the family unit being all important even in cases of abuse.

As someone who was born in the late 80’s every one of these points has been common knowledge throughout my whole life. When that happens it can easily be taken for granted the men and women who worked so hard to MAKE such things common knowledge. Birrell works hard to include not only his own efforts to dispel myths about driving and alcohol but also the trails and efforts of many other pioneers covering an impressive range of time. Especially interesting to me were several studies that were forced to prove against and again that even a person who doesn’t appear drunk will have hugely compromised their driving ability through drinking. It is a true credit to John Birrell and all the others who campaigned that Victoria was the first state in the first country to make seat belts mandatory, the positive effects of this were almost instantaneous.

As I have already stated, this book does not include Birrell’s personal life but it is certainly filled with his personality. He can move from one wry comment to another with impressive swiftness. While some people many find that this book moves too quickly, with hardly any stories being mulled over as one would normally find in a biography, but as a history of road safety in Victoria this book packs an incredibly amount of information into under one hundred pages.

One point I feel I must raise, though it is no fault of Birrell but BROLGA publishers is that the copy I read was woefully filled with typos, in one or two cases making sentences difficult to understand. I hope that this was an early copy and that this problem has been seen to since then because it mars the enjoyment of the book itself.

Throughout the whole book, Birrell shows us his passion for keep the Victorian people healthy and safe. His message is one of a job well done but certainly not finished as he continues to outline what vigilance must be continued ti keep road fatalities down. His chapter on child abuse is particularly sad to read and clearly shows that people must always work on improving lives around them.

A great biography by a great man who never stopped thinking about saving lives.

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