Born in New Brighton, Christchurch, on 10 September 1902, Edward (Ted) George Sayers grew up in straitened circumstances. He was the son of Henry Hind Sayers, a carpenter, and his wife, Amelia Ruth Blandford, who was indefatigable in caring for her four boys. His father was a scholarly man who, although he became paraplegic, retained his sense of humour. An entrance scholarship took Edward to Christ’s College until he was 15, then after two years of clerical work he entered into an arrangement with his church which allowed him to enter the University of Otago Medical School.
He graduated MB, ChB in 1924, spent a year as a house physician at Wellington Hospital, and then went to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, gaining the diploma in 1926. Thus equipped, he embarked on a seven-year term with the Methodist mission at Gizo, in the Solomon Islands. There his first task was the building of a hospital. On 3 March 1928, at Roviana, Sayers married Jane Lumsden Grove; they were to have six children. He found time during his period at Gizo to gather specimens, which he sent back to the London School, and snakes for the British Museum. His work was to gain him the Cilento medal of the Australian Institute of Anatomy in 1940.
In 1935 he gained membership of the Royal College of Physicians of London. This prompted him to change direction and return to New Zealand, where he entered consultant practice in Auckland. He enlisted soon after the outbreak of war, and on 1 May 1940 went overseas as a captain with No 1 New Zealand General Hospital, and as an adviser on tropical medicine. In the Greek campaign his knowledge enabled him to site the hospital in malaria-free terrain at Pharsala. Back in North Africa he was promoted lieutenant colonel and appointed officer commanding the medical division of the hospital in August 1941.
In November 1942, after New Zealand became involved in the Pacific war, Sayers took charge of the medical division of No 4 New Zealand General Hospital, which was deployed to New Caledonia. In 1943 he was appointed consulting physician to the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force in the Pacific, and in November he assumed command of the hospital with the rank of colonel. His great contribution to the Pacific conflict, however, was as adviser on tropical diseases – dysentery, malaria, dengue, and sand-fly fever – to the New Zealand forces and also to the Americans, who recognised his contribution with the award of the US Legion of Merit. His handbook on malaria control became a standard text.
On demobilisation Sayers resumed his practice in Auckland, but also was recognised as a brilliant clinical teacher and soon became sub-dean of the Auckland Branch Faculty, responsible for the teaching of final-year Otago students. He also became heavily involved in the affairs of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, of which he had been a foundation fellow in 1938. Having been chairman of the New Zealand committee of the college and one of the first two New Zealand members elected to the council, he became the first New Zealander to be elected president, for a two-year term (1956–58). He was made a CMG in 1956. In 1963 he took a college team to Singapore to provide specialist teaching in medicine under the auspices of the Colombo Plan.
Sayers succeeded Sir Charles Hercus as dean of the Otago Medical School in 1958; with this appointment went a personal chair in therapeutics. In 1959 he somehow found time to complete his MD on malaria, and in 1960 he flew to London for discussions which led to the establishment of the Wellcome Medical Research Institute in Dunedin.
Sayers was a compact man of engaging personality who was admired as a clinician with an ‘intuitive flair for clinical medicine’, this flair manifest equally in his bedside teaching of undergraduates in Auckland, and on a visit to No 2 New Zealand General Hospital at Waiouru in 1967 as colonel commandant, which he prolonged so that he might join in the ward rounds.
Numerous distinctions came his way. In 1963 he was president of the New Zealand Branch of the British Medical Association; he chaired the Medical Council (1956–64), and from January 1964 to December 1967 he was colonel commandant of the Royal New Zealand Army Medical Corps. He was made a knight bachelor in 1965, and a knight in the Order of St John the same year; he retired from the deanship in 1968. In 1975, at the time of the Medical School’s centenary celebrations, the University of Otago awarded him an honorary DSc.
In November 1971 Edward Sayers divorced his wife, Jane, and on 15 December at Lower Hutt he married Patricia Dorothy Coleman, a university teacher who became dean of the School of Home Science in Dunedin. He died in Dunedin on 12 May 1985, survived by his wife and four daughters and two sons from his first marriage.