Attention Internet Explorer User

Your web browser has been identified as Internet Explorer .

In the coming months this site is going to be updated to improve security, accessibility and mobile experience. Older versions of Internet Explorer do not provide the functionality required for these changes and as such your browser will no longer be supported as of September 2020. If you require continued access to this site then you will need to install a different browser such as Mozilla Firefox, Microsoft Edge or Google Chrome.

Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Ebsary, Richard Vivian (Viv) (1905–1992)

by Barry Baker

This article was published online in 2020

Richard Vivian Ebsary (1905–1992), inventor, biomedical engineer, and philanthropist, was born on 12 May 1905 at Narrogin, Western Australia, second child and only son of South Australian-born John Richard Ebsary, commission agent and later orchardist, and his Victorian-born wife Clara Antoinette, née Nenke. His mother worked as a matron of the Rest Home for the Aged Blind at Victoria Park, Perth. Viv—who seems to have preferred to reverse his given names—left school at thirteen and became a self-trained fitter and turner. Arriving in Sydney in 1927, he established a factory in the city centre, before moving it to Darlinghurst. He was involved in establishing the Balmain Police Boys’ Club sailing crew, and was a member of Bondi Surf Life-Saving Club. In the 1930s he successfully sailed the 18-footers Kiwi and Miranda in races. On 4 May 1938 he married Queensland-born Jessie Eleanor King, a secondary school teacher, in an Anglican service at the Church of St George, Maleny.

Ebsary’s company—named V. R. Ebsary & Co. from 1932—expanded in the 1930s into specialised production and toolmaking. In World War II it was declared a protected industry and participated in a number of important projects, including manufacturing Sten guns and wing fixtures for Mosquito aircraft and creating a mechanism to detonate explosives in mid-air. It also constructed specialised naval equipment and repaired pumps in Allied warships.

A conversation with Andrew Distin Morgan, an anaesthetist at the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children, led to Ebsary entering the field of biomedical engineering. Following the war, it was difficult to acquire imported specialised medical apparatus, and Morgan required a new portable anaesthetic machine. This appliance became the first medical device that Ebsary produced. When Morgan requested a larger anaesthetic machine in 1949, Ebsary manufactured one that was well in advance of the technology of the period.

Since 1947 Ebsary’s company, which specialised in the production of a range of different pumps for industry, had been called Ebs-Ray Pumps Pty Ltd, as that was simpler to spell and pronounce. In the mid-1950s the medical practitioner Moss Cass and the physicist Alan Harper asked Ebsary to provide a pump to circulate cooled water in a new hypothermia machine for St Vincent’s Hospital. Despite a lack of funding for the undertaking, he complied, and his business devised and constructed ‘the first complete hypothermia machine built in Australia’ (O’Brien 2005, 17). The device was used for brief circulatory arrest to allow correction of atrial septal defects. At the request of Douglas Cohen, a cardiac surgeon, and Victor Hercus, an anaesthetist, Ebsary was the perfusionist, running it during operations at the children’s hospital, and at Royal North Shore Hospital, where hypothermia was used by the neurosurgeon John Grant. Between operations he prepared it for its next use, and conveyed it around the city as needed in his firm’s Volkswagen Kombi van.

On one occasion Ebsary attended an operation during which it was found that the patient, a child, had a ventricular septal defect that could not be mended during the approximately ten minutes allowed by hypothermia. Learning that cardiopulmonary bypass—then not possible in Australia—was required, he and his company created a heart-lung machine, which he gave to the children’s hospital in 1959. During the following decade, numerous of these machines were delivered to cardiac units in Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere. He acted as perfusionist, voluntarily spending each Thursday at the children’s hospital.

During the 1961 and 1962 polio epidemic, Ebsary designed and produced a respiratory intensive care unit with articulated retractable equipment at Prince Henry Hospital. With Bruce Johnston and Hercus, he also devised and fabricated a hyperbaric unit for Prince Henry Hospital, which began use in 1971; it was moved to Prince of Wales Hospital in 1998. Other equipment constructed by Ebsary included implants and other apparatus for correcting spinal deformity, and chair-lift appliances to enable patients in wheelchairs to enter and exit vehicles.

Ebsary’s contributions to medical technology were enabled by the ongoing success of Ebsray Pumps. His ingenuity led to three patents for his main engineering business, while his ‘inventive mind, quality of workmanship and generosity’ made a major ‘contribution to cardiac surgery in Australia’ (O’Brien 2005, 20). In 1984 the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children named its cardiac ward for him, and in 1989 he was appointed AM.

Among Ebsary’s leisure pastimes were sailing and swimming. As a swimming coach he helped his squad to reach Australian and international championship standards; one of those to do so was his youngest son, William (Bill). A passionate fisherman, he had been encouraged in his medical engineering activities by the paediatric surgeon A. C. ‘Toby’ Bowring, his fishing associate and friend. He also ‘swam daily, including through most of the winter for his entire life,’ and ‘walked regularly’ for fitness (O’Brien 2005, 20). His family recalled him as ‘a modest man’ (Sydney Morning Herald 1993, 4), who was ‘practical and intuitive’ (UQ 2014). He died on 31 December 1992 at Avalon and, after a funeral at St Mark’s Anglican Church, was cremated; his wife and three sons survived him.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • O’Brien, H. D. ‘Vivian Richard Ebsary, A.M. Biomedical Engineer, Inventor, Philanthropist.’ Anaesthesia and Intensive Care 33, no. 3 Supplement (2005): 16–20
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘An Unsung Hero of Medical Technology.’ 5 January 1993, 4
  • University of Queensland. ‘John, a Noun Is a Name of a Place or a Thing.’ 1 January 2014. Accessed 30 April 2019. https://alumni.uq.edu.au/article/2013/11/john-noun-name-place-or-thing. Copy held on ADB file

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Barry Baker, 'Ebsary, Richard Vivian (Viv) (1905–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/ebsary-richard-vivian-viv-27636/text35084, published online 2020, accessed online 26 October 2020.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020