In conversation with Dr Tony Tonks

What do a littLe grey Fergie, George Lazenby and nuclear biological chemical warfare systems have in common? they’re all part of the curiosities and experiences that make up the colourful world of Dr Tony Tonks.

It’s been three years since we caught up with Canberra plastic surgeon Dr Tony Tonks.

In that time his thriving Canberra practice has continued to grow, with additional staff members, a wider range of services and commitment to ongoing training and education.

But all work and no play would make for a dull man. And dull is not a word to describe the inquisitive and always interesting Dr Tony Tonks. ‘I’m now a proud member of the vintage tractor brotherhood,’ he proudly proclaims. ‘I purchased a 1953 Little Grey Fergie. While I have a very small boat for fishing, it’s practically considered a necessity to have a tractor for putting your boat in the water, even though it’s small enough to launch by hand.

‘The Little Grey Fergie is quite an iconic tractor. When I travelled to South Pole. It was quite amusing to walk into the hotel close to midnight and be confronted by a Little Grey Fergie to greet me.’

Dr Tonks is a keen fisherman and avid collector of vintage fishing gear. ‘Beautiful wading staffs, premium silk lines sourced from France – to me, these all keep the fishing as authentic as possible,’ he says.

‘I had a number of my game fishing rods restored, and last year I tagged and released a 75kg striped marlin on a 100-year-old rod and reel. It was an exciting moment. (The line was new, my nine inch Fortuna reel, the first game fishing reel made with a reversible clutch by Hardy’s.)’

The evolution of game fishing, especially marlin fishing, is of particular interest to Dr Tonks. He now has a range of rods and reels, starting with cane with wooden reels and brass insets right through to the Penn reel with fiberglass rods. ‘It’s interesting to see how the material has changed as new technologies have emerged,’ he says. ‘I plan to mount these and display them in my o ce – numerous patients get a lot of pleasure out of seeing my fishing gear and many have very found memories of fishing in their youth.’

In addition to mounted fishing rods and reels in his practice, he’s also added the first edition of Dentons Report of the Commissioners of Fisheries, Game and Forests of the State of New York from 1898. Sherman Denton provided the watercolor illustrations for 100 chromo-lithographs documenting various species of North American sh – and a few of other wildlife – for the State of New York Fisheries, Game, and Forest Commission’s Annual Reports from 1895 to 1909. He also developed and patented a method for mounting sh without losing the natural colours.

‘I rst saw these prints in Hobart and have now framed three of these, mounted in the same frame with a brown rainbow trout and smelt, which is the main food source for trout in Lake Taupo where I often sh in New Zealand,’ says Dr Tonks.

To the delight of many patients, also hanging on the walls are signed posters of two iconic James Bond movies. ‘Some years ago I met George Lazenby – the James Bond from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,’ Dr Tonks explains. ‘It’s a little-known fact that he was born in Queanbeyan, which is right next to Canberra. It was during a fundraiser that I purchased a signed poster of the movie from George and this year I managed to match that by adding a poster of Moonraker signed by Roger Moore. These are displayed in the practice, positioned behind the front door so that people won’t necessarily see them on the way in but will hopefully get a chuckle from them on their way out.’

The important work of Henry Tonks (and a bonfire that nearly destroyed it) The Tonks family has a long history with the arts. Henry Tonks (1862- 1937), a distant relative of Dr Tony Tonks, was a surgeon and war artist who became the Slade Professor of Fine Art at University College London. Tonks was celebrated on his death as ‘the greatest leader of that great revival of the art of drawing’, and the Henry Tonks Prize is still coveted to this day.

‘He’s arguably best known for being the official WWI artist; some of his work hangs in the Imperial War Museum in London,’ Dr Tonks explains. ‘He recorded the work
of Sir Harold Gillies in watercolour during the very early days of plastic surgery. As Henry Tonks was a surgeon also, he had a better appreciation of anatomy and I think his works do re ect early clinical imaging of certain surgery. Obviously now this is replaced by cameras; but it was probably a very early anatomical reflection of what was occurring during the infancy of plastic and reconstructive surgery.

‘It’s ironic that one of my professors at the University of Otago was based in England, at the very hospital where Gillies’ files and art were kept,’ he continues. ‘The hospital was being expanded and he heard they were burning all of Gillies’ work, so my professor went and saved a signi cant number of clinical paintings from the bon re that had been prepared. Nowadays they are quite highly sought after and in circulation throughout the world. I don’t possess any of Henry Tonks’ art, but it’s something I’m on the lookout for.’

A road less travelled: an interesting path to plastic surgery

‘I decided to become a plastic surgeon in my final year of medicine,’ he begins.

‘Throughout my medical training I always pursued a more “medical” bent and had aspirations to become a neurologist. I found the workings of the brain and central and peripheral nervous systems fascinating and felt that was my direction. That all changed in my final year of training when I was promoted to become a resident and worked in the emergency department in Dunedin.

‘During that time I spent a lot of time suturing lacerations and became fascinated by the skin – and also amused that it was the most accessible and largest organ of the body, but the one where everyone else wanted to cut through to get to where they were going. I decided then to explore plastic surgery – there were no plastic surgeons at Otago at the time so I was accepted to have a rotation in plastic surgery in Wellington. Unfortunately, at that Dr Tonks’ collection of antique fishing reels point there was only one training post every seven years in NZ and that position had recently been filled. I didn’t want to train in any other area of the hospital system which I wouldn’t pursue in the future, so instead I undertook a number of other medical-related activities relating to aviation and underwater medicine.’

Dr Tonks also worked in the military, both in NZ and in Europe during the Cold War, where he was involved in nuclear biological chemical warfare systems testing, Hardy’s nine inch Fortuna Reel and matching rod. Heading out to the fishing grounds particularly the application to surgery and medicine in the eld.

‘One of the most interesting parts was working in West Berlin while Rudolph Hess, Deputy Führer and considered to be the number three man in Hitler’s Germany, was still a patient.

‘With West Berlin being a little “island” in the Eastern bloc, it was a very exciting city to live in. I have yet to return to Berlin following the unification of Germany and it’s certainly something on my bucket list,’ says Dr Tonks. AMP

In the hot seat

My perfect weekend is…
To go for a drive with my family through the countryside in the ACT, find a nice place to have lunch and enjoy the landscape.

My favourite place to eat is…
We’re fortunate in Canberra (or unfortunate, depending on how you look at it), that there are a number of politicians here – which leads to having a wide range of restaurants of very high standards. There’s such a range that it’s impossible to choose a favourite; but when visitors come to Canberra I particularly enjoy taking them to Onred, a restaurant on the top of Red Hill in South Canberra. With its elevated position, it has spectacular views of the valleys around the ACT and Parliament House. It’s really interesting to see the growth of the city as the lights spread further towards the horizons in both directions.

My favourite car…
1988 Ferrari Testarossa. I love exploring around NSW in this car. It’s interesting how much pleasure this brings to others as well, and quite often I’ll be parked and people will want to take their photo with the car.

My favourite place to travel is…
Through the high country of Victoria and NSW. I’m fortunate to have a small property in Lake Tapoe in NZ which is also a beautiful place to travel around.

I let off steam by…
Driving. I have no phone connector or working radio in my car, so I just enjoy the drive and seeing how the countryside is changing with the seasons.

If I had more time…
I would engage in more philanthropic work. I’m quite actively involved in philanthropy in the ACT but I would enjoy the opportunity to join Interplast – I have a long history with cleft lip and palette surgery and into the future I expect I will spend some time with the teams operating around the South Pacific.

I’m most proud of my…
Family. We have four children and I see they have a genuine care and concern for others and endeavour to make the world a better place, which is all one can ever ask.

If I wasn’t a surgeon…
I would probably be in the entertainment industry. Many years ago I was heavily involved in music, and as a teenager I was encouraged
in this direction. It’s often interesting to think which direction my life would have taken if I’d pursued that. I don’t imagine I’d have a vintage fishing collection, so I probably made the right choice!


Dr Tony Tonks is a client of ProLENDING, specialists in medical finance and sponsor of this feature.