Chapter 3

Back in Australia

On returning to Australia in May, 1959, after a year in New Zealand, I found that very little had changed in Adelaide. I had not even been missed! Nevertheless I was grateful that Bernard Nicholson, the Superintendent of the Royal Adelaide Hospital, had seen fit to offer me a second year job. On this occasion, I had no argument with the roster; it was surprisingly good. Nicholson was a complex character, I was to find out later that year.

The roster he offered was four months of Medicine with the Professor of Medicine, Hugh Robson, a Scot from Edinburgh and the first Professor of Medicine in Adelaide, followed by three months of neurosurgery with Jim Dinning. Finally, I would have three months of thoracic surgery with an Adelaide legend, H. D’Arcy Sutherland, the same thoracic surgeon who performed the first lung lobectomy done in Adelaide on my sister Elvia way back in 1947. Jim Dinning and D’Arcy Sutherland had no other resident help apart from me. They were not allocated any registrars, which did seem rather strange at the time, but at least I was a second year intern and knew my way around – although not as well as I thought I did!

The last time I was in Adelaide, I had been living at my parents’ home. On this occasion I had full board and lodging at the Royal Adelaide Hospital and was allocated a room in ‘Glory’, a little enclave of about six bedrooms and communal showers on the third floor above the infamous medical wards of Flinders and Light. Again, I was well satisfied, although my colleagues had all been medical students the year behind me and so I felt them to be junior.

The first requirement was a vehicle, so I went back to our close family friend, Pat Faulkner, whose nephew Leonard was the Catholic Archbishop. He owned Eclipse Motors and hopefully had forgotten how my friend Ian Fricker and I had messed up a delivery job of new Ford trucks from Geelong to Adelaide whilst we were still at school in 1950. We had driven over newly-laid road which had resulted in all the vehicles being splattered with tar. I doubt that Pat could have forgotten but he did say he was pleased to see me and offered me a somewhat aged Ford Zephir, which had done many miles. Nevertheless, the price was good, so we did a deal.

My term with Hugh Robson was – yes, enjoyable. A Scot from Edinburgh, he came to Adelaide with a huge reputation and I found him to be a thorough gentleman. He was always polite and softly spoken with his Edinburgh accent, which is nowhere near as broad and difficult to make out as I found with Glaswegians.

Professor Sir Hugh Robson

It was a high-powered unit and included all the clever students and registrars who were climbing the ladder in Medicine. The Senior Registrar was Ian Forbes who later became Reader in Medicine at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital. His contemporaries also attended the ward rounds and these included such luminaries as Jim Lawrence, later to become Professor of Medicine at Concord Hospital in Sydney and, occasionally, Sol Posen, who became Professor and Head of the Physiology department at the University of Sydney. I had played in the university ‘A’ football  team with Jim who had been four years ahead of me as a medical student and he insisted on referring to me by my nickname ‘Ripper’ on ward rounds, much to everyone’s amusement (and my embarrassment).

We had fourth year medical students working as clerks on the ward and, again, these were the cream of that year’s students. They included Peter Wise, Carlien Fahy and Dick Kimber, the last named having already graduated in Dentistry. All were headed for notable careers in Medicine and even at that stage knew more than I did. I was responsible for teaching them procedures, such as taking blood, tapping the spine for cerebrospinal fluid, bladder catheterisation and so forth.

The ward for which I was responsible is worth mentioning. It was Light Ward, a male medical ward situated a floor below our residence in ‘Glory’. The ward sister in charge was a legend at the Adelaide Hospital, Jess Clifford. She had been a wartime nurse and, although the ward was immense, with probably 40 or 50 beds lined up on either side, she never missed a beat. Sitting on her stool in the middle of the ward, she kept track of everything happening around her. She was well above me in the pecking order and directed her nurses and the medical students as if she were herding sheep. She could pick a really sick patient in a flash, with a kind of inbuilt intuition which made her diagnostically brilliant. She was at her best when the unit was ‘on take’ which meant that every emergency medical case that was admitted to the hospital during a particular 24 hours came to Light Ward.

RAH Charge Nurses 1952 – Jess Clifford bottom right

No-one was ever turned away to languish in the Emergency Department as they do today; they came straight up to the ward. When we ran out of beds, black beds were sent for from the basement. If it were a busy ‘take’, the black beds would take up all available floor space in the centre of the ward, thus perhaps almost doubling the number of beds to 90 or so. The patients would include all manner of the populace, including homeless men picked up from Pinky Flat on the River Torrens. Some of these had not removed their clothes in months and had to be undressed and bathed before they could possibly be examined. It was the custom for the medical students to take histories and examine these patients for presentation on the next ward round.

Being a professor of international standing, Hugh Robson entertained many visiting dignitaries from other countries. On one occasion we had a visit from Professor Ray Farquarson, Professor of Medicine at Toronto General Hospital, Canada. The professor joined our ward round, gave a lecture or two on medical education and then came to lunch in our residents’ dining room in Bice Building in the hospital. Purely by chance, I found myself sitting next to him at lunch and he engaged me in animated conversation. I would never have dared to talk casually with such an international giant but he seemed to be genuinely interested. He enquired about my time in New Zealand and then moved on to ask me about my medical ambitions. I explained to him that my real ambitions lay in the surgical field, not Medicine, but that I had not been a top student, and so it was unlikely that I would be able to get on to the surgical training scheme, or even obtain an anatomy demonstrator’s position. Professor Farquarson listened intently and told me of his ardent interest in medical education. He then informed me that he was a good friend of Professor John Duckworth, Professor of Anatomy at the famous Toronto Anatomy Department[2] and that Professor Duckworth allocated some of his positions to foreign graduates. He undertook to speak to Professor Duckworth upon his return to Toronto and ask if I could be given one of these positions. He wrote down my name in his notebook and I gave the Adelaide Hospital as my address, as we had each been allocated pigeon holes in the Common Room. We said our farewells after lunch and I never saw him again. I might add that he had many other conversations during that lunch hour, with many an aspiring physician trying to get a toehold on the ladder.

The Toronto Anatomy Department was famous because it was the department of J.C. Boileau Grant, the writer of Grant’s Method of Anatomy, the book favoured internationally by most medical students in their second and third years. Grant by that time had retired from the Chair, and I later learned that, being a staunch Edinburgh man, Grant had travelled to Edinburgh and personally chose his successor, John Duckworth, from the Edinburgh Anatomy Department. As I was also to learn later, this did not sit very well with Canadians in the Anatomy Department who felt they were well and truly able to fill Grant’s shoes.

Well, I felt honoured by Farquarson’s generous offer but my expectations were not high, he being famous with me an undistinguished nobody. Why, with his busy international schedule, would he take the trouble to help me? I really did not expect to hear any more – but I had seriously underestimated the depth of character of the man.

During my time at the Adelaide Hospital I renewed my friendships with Ian Leonard and Frank Altmann and made many new ones, amongst whom was Tony Slavotinek, a Sydney graduate who had migrated from Prague and who somehow found himself in the same medical year as his father, who had been compelled to repeat some training in order to get medical registration in Australia. 

We had many good times, often going across North Terrace after work to the Botanic Hotel, well patronised by RAH resident staff. One sad, regular patron was Premier John Bannon’s father, Charles, who sat in a corner drinking. He had been the Arts teacher at St Peter’s College and had taught my friend, Ian Leonard. His second son, Nicholas, aged 10, became separated from the family whilst hiking in Wilpena Pound. Despite an intensive search by many people, he was never found. Years later, hikers came across his skeleton. This sad episode devastated his family.

We had good parties in Bice Building. I remember the drinking glasses that we used were guaranteed not to break when dropped or even when hurled against a fire place. At one party we decided to put this to the test but unfortunately every one of some 20 or so glasses that were tested smashed to smithereens. Had we been smart, we’d have cleaned up the mess of broken glass but we chose not to. The maids next morning reported the mess to Bernard Nicholson and, of course, we were duly assembled for a please explain. He would not accept that we had been supplied with second rate glasses and those responsible, myself included, lost their annual ten per cent retainer. (It was the custom of the hospital to retain ten per cent of our salary, paying it only at the end of the year if behaviour had been within acceptable limits. I gather this system had been introduced many years before to stem the wild behaviour of interns, prone to let off steam after six years of drudgery and then finding themselves working 80 hours a week in the wards.)

After completing my Medical term, I moved on to neurosurgery. On that unit I found myself to be the only intern serving four masters: Head of Unit, neurosurgeon Jim Dinning, his assistant, Donald Simpson, with whom I formed a friendship lasting 50 years, neurologist John Gordon and a more junior neurologist, Dick Rischbieth, with whom I was to work with later at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital for 30 years. My job was to clerk all the neurological and neurosurgical patients admitted to the RAH, look after them in the wards and assist at all operations. It was a hard, busy grind, especially assisting for six-hour operations.

Editor’s addition: The University of Adelaide Medicine Graduation Ball of ’56 – Dick Rischbieth in nurse’s uniform driving the trolley

Neurosurgeons had their own surgical ritual in those days. Preparatory to the craniotomy, they covered the patient’s shaved head with wet drapes sutured to the scalp.  Local anaesthetic was then injected along the incision line, the scalp incised and a scalp flap turned, cauterising the numerous scalp bleeders. Then multiple holes were drilled in the skull and these were conjoined with a Gigli saw and the top of the skull removed, exposing the brain membranes.

Use of the Gigli Saw

The brain membranes were then incised and turned back to expose the cortex of the brain. Then followed the resection of the diseased portion of the brain – a slow, tedious process. Three hours into a six-hour procedure we would adjourn to the tea room for coffee and biscuits, leaving the anaesthetist pumping the bag. Following this ten-minute break, we would return and re-scrub and re-gown for another three hours.

Donald Simpson was a remarkable man with a remarkable brain himself. After one of our six-hour marathons he remarked to me, “Johnson, despite my puny physique, I have remarkable stamina!”

Both facts were true enough. At the conclusion of another memorable long operating session he commented, “Johnson, do you know that for the last hour and a half my trousers have been around my ankles!” Well, I was relieved he had not asked a nurse to rescue him from his predicament.

Donald was a scholar and philosopher, more suited I think to being a physician than a surgeon. I remember him giving an hour-long dissertation at the history section of an annual surgical conference on the surgeons of the East India Company in the 19th century. The presentation was delivered without any reference to notes or slides, with his eyes half shut and lips pouted, as was his habit.

A final reminiscence of Donald. He was anti-sport, in keeping with his scholarship. During one operation, the anaesthetists at the top end of the table were discussing the merits of several football teams. One of the pair commented; “You wouldn’t know anything about that Donald, would you? As a matter of interest, what do you do in your spare time?”

Without missing a beat Donald calmly stopped operating and replied, “Oh, I collect stamps and do a bit of gardening, and if there is any time left I copulate with my wife.” Touche! End of football talk from patronising anaesthetists.

In later years and after I retired, I happened to catch up with Donald and was pleased to chat with him. He was always very interested in history and had purchased a book I’d written about my convict forebears, Sentenced to Cross the Raging Sea.

“Ross,” he later noted, “It could equally well be filed with my books on British history as it could with my books on Australian history.”

Top: Donald Simpson with me at the 2010 Annual Scientific Convention and (bottom) three years later,

aged 87, researching his own family history.

Jim Dinning was the head of the neurosurgical service at the RAH and was highly respected. He had followed the founder of the neurosurgical unit, Sir Leonard Lindon, being appointed in 1953. Jim’s father had been the headmaster of Adelaide Boys High School. He was competent with his clinical judgement and a very slick and effective surgeon. He took half the time of some surgeons with better results. He had a kindly manner with patients and always came (in his little Austin A40) whenever he was called at night. He called a spade a spade and perhaps this left him a little behind in the politics of the hospital. One could perhaps call him taciturn from time to time.

Trevor Alfred Ridley ‘Jim’ Dinning

On the medical wards was a brilliant Jewish medical senior registrar by the name of Sol Posen. One of the up-and-coming bright young physicians, he became one of Australia’s pioneers in bone and mineral endocrinology, working in Sydney. On one occasion, we were trudging around the hospital corridors doing our rounds – Jim Dinning leading the team with Donald a dutiful step behind, followed by the neurologists John Gordon and Dick Rischbieth with me, the dog’s body, bringing up the rear. Sol Posen hove into sight walking towards us and when he reached our team, our leader brought us to a halt. “Ah, Mr Dinning, Sir, good morning,” spoke Sol in a cheery fashion. “Did you see the patient on whom I did a lumbar puncture last night? What did you think of him?” “We did indeed Posen,” was the response. “And I would suggest that you put this man’s life very much at risk by doing what you did. You are very lucky indeed, that he did not cone his medulla oblongata into the foramen magnum and die on you. If you have such a problem in future we would be grateful if you would consult us, and we will be only too pleased to oblige immediately! Good morning.”

Sol’s jaw dropped visibly. For once he was lost for words. Dinning did not choose to open a debate and our whole unit put its communal nose in the air and moved on as one, passing the stunned senior registrar without a further word.

This clearly upset Sol as he dearly wanted to debate the issue but had not been given the opportunity. Later, after our ward round ended and everyone went their separate ways, I went up to the interns’ lounge for morning tea and there was poor Sol, still upstet, holding audience with his medical colleagues on what “he said and then I said”. I suspected it to have been payback by Jim Dinning on some festering sore yet I never saw him vindictive but for that occasion.

‘Professor Sol Posen died in 2016.

It was a heavy week on neurosurgery and it did not ease off on the weekends. Sunday morning was not a time for church but for the unit to gather together and file all the week’s activities under appropriate headings.

The amount of cross filing we did on those Sunday mornings was amazing; all in the name of future research. A particular patient’s symptoms were analysed and if he or she had, for example, dizziness as a symptom, then his or her name would be cross-filed under the ‘dizziness’ heading so that if a paper were to be written on dizziness, then information could be accessed on all those patients who had suffered those symptoms. Pathology slides were included with the patient files s so that they could be easily reviewed and compared with slides of similarly-diagnosed patients.

We even recorded moving film of patients walking or demonstrating their physical symptoms on camera so that these, too, could be compared at a later date. The unit at that time had a great interest in the surgical possibilities in treating Parkinson’s disease. Donald Simpson was the enthusiast on the unit, Jim Dinning being more circumspect and probably a doubter.

The Parkinson’s patients would be carefully prepared and filmed using a 16mm camera. The day before the operation, the patient would be taken down to theatre for a burr hole under local anaesthetic, a procedure I was occasionally allowed to perform. A burr hole was pure carpentry. A small incision was made in the scalp at the appropriate place, and then an old fashioned brace and bit used to hand drill the hole as though it were a piece of wood. When the hole approached the brain membranes (dura mater) the bit was changed to a round ended bit to avoid any damage. Trephining goes back to pre-Incan times but is still a life-saving procedure in cases of extradural haemorrhage, to let out the clot pressing on the brain after a heavy blow in the temporal region where the middle meningeal artery can be ruptured. Time is the essence in these cases and there may be a window of only half an hour in which to act.

Trephining (left) is an age-old procedure and in 1959 the tools were much the same as in the historic wood-cut

On the day of the operation, the Parkinson’s patient would be taken to theatre for his or her stereotactic thalamotomy – a euphemism for destroying certain bands of nerves thought to be malfunctioning. In order to radiologically guide the electrode to the target with accuracy, a metal stereotactic frame was placed on the patient’s head and fixed with screws into the skull (see picture below). The idea was to precisely control the position of the rod inserted into the brain under xray before cauterising these presumedly malfunctioning pathways. A prior xray of the patient’s skull marking the thalamus was used to guide the position of the rod and align it before using the cautery. With the patient awake, the effects on the Parkinsonian tremor could be assessed. Of course, all of this was before CT and MRI scans, so it was a bit hit and miss.

Later example of a Parkinson’s frame

Postoperatively, we’d take more 16mm films. I thought the results to be less than sensational but it was pioneering surgery back in the 1950s and the forerunner of the similar but more sophisticated procedures of today.

I enjoyed my three months on the neurosurgical unit and established a good rapport with my bosses, so much so, that at the end of my term, Jim Dinning presented me with a book of his choice called The Student Life. He clearly thought more highly of me than I felt I deserved – or perhaps he felt that the book would improve my sloppy habits. Certainly, Jim Dinning was an inspirational man.

The final attachment of my employment at the RAH was on the cardio-thoracic surgical unit run by probably the most talented surgeon at the RAH, D’Arcy Sutherland. D’Arcy was the first properly-trained thoracic or chest surgeon in Adelaide, having trained in the UK under the thoracic pioneering surgeons of the time, including Lord Russell Brock[1]. He had returned to Adelaide in 1947 after serving in the navy in WWII. By coincidence, the first lung resection he performed in Adelaide was on my sister Elvia, who had chronically infected lung bases from bronchiectasis. This had followed a severe bout of measles which she contracted in early childhood.  At the time of her operation, she was 26 and had been troubled for the whole of her life with a chronic, productive cough and recurrent ill-health.                          

D’Arcy Sutherland was a smooth, medical politician as well as a superb technician. He had manipulated the powers that were so that his unit occupied in its entirety the old roundhouse in the grounds of the RAH. He had two operating theatres constructed to his own design, with adjacent offices and consulting suites. He was master of all he surveyed. This was brought home to me by Jim Dinning whose neurosurgical unit worked under no such luxury. On one of our hospital rounds, with his patients scattered far and wide around the hospital, Jim paused outside D’Arcy’s domain and remarked, “How does this man manage to get himself such grand accommodation while we have nothing of our own?” Well, the answer was obvious. Jim, superb diagnostician and operator that he was, remained in the political kindergarten in comparison with D’Arcy Sutherland. D’Arcy’s gifts were recognised by his peers when he later became President of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, a position occupied by one of his sons in later years and whose inauguration D’Arcy attended in Christchurch at the age of 93. He was also appointed to the staff of the Royal Melbourne Children’s Hospital after he retired, where his organisational skills were sorely needed.

Upon his return to Adelaide from Melbourne, D’Arcy was appointed Director of the Institute of Medical and Veterinary Science. But even afterwards his skills were in demand and, at 75, he finally retired after five years as Director of Outpatients at Flinders Medical Centre. He then set up a vineyard at Piccadilly and could be seen joyfully riding his tractor between the rows of vines. In between all these activities, he managed to get his golf handicap down to three and keep it there. A resplendent career for one who lost his father at a young age when he was killed in WWI as one of the world’s earliest pilots. D’Arcy also lost his brother just before WWII, in a flying accident. He was educated through scholarships both at St Peter’s College and at Adelaide University, graduating in 1937.

D’Arcy in theatre garb, binocular loops on his glasses

D’Arcy was tall, blue-eyed, blonde and handsome and appreciated a pretty nurse. D’Arcy was head of the unit, with Howard ‘Tookie’ Brown the other consultant thoracic surgeon and, again, I was the dog’s body. They relied on me completely for the day to day running of the unit and I enjoyed the responsibility. It was real surgery. D’Arcy was hard on Tookie Brown and never allowed him to do any cardiac cases, nor can I remember him doing any lung resections on the unit. He was allocated the simpler stuff, oesophagoscopies and other investigative   procedures. D’Arcy was fiercely protective of the unit’s reputation as the top thoracic unit in the country, on a par with Green Lane in Auckland.

My job was to admit patients for surgery and to assist D’Arcy in theatre. We did regular heart operations which had never before been done in Adelaide. It was a couple of years before the heart lung machine was introduced which then enabled the blood to be bypassed from the heart, making the job much easier. In those days, the surgery had to be performed with the heart continuing to do its job of pumping the blood around the body. I remember D’Arcy’s technique for dealing with mitral stenosis (narrowing of the mitral valve). After exposing the heart by splitting the sternum, he would stitch a little sac on to the auricle of the atrium to gain access. The blood pressure on the atrial side of the heart is quite low, venous pressure only, and so the blood would rise only a few centimetres into the sac. He would then strap a knife blade on to his index finger and plunge his finger into the blood-filled atrium, using the blade to divide the stenosed and narrowed valve. It was all done by feel, as the field of vision was obscured by the blood still being pumped by the heart. There was usually a bit of blood loss but not much. The atrium was stitched up, the sternum re-sutured and job done.

We would then retire to the tea room in the theatre suite, again designed by D’Arcy and to his specifications. For tea, there would usually be in attendance D’Arcy and his anaesthetist Pauline Daniels, (probably) his theatre sister Val Gurr, Tookie Brown and me. The other regular attendee was my old sparring partner – the Medical Superintendent of the Royal Adelaide Hospital, Bernard Nicholson. Bernie and I had crossed swords on a previous occasion as described earlier, which resulted in me being banished to New Zealand for a year. We had again crossed swords after an unfortunate incident at a hospital party in Bice Building, which had resulted in damage due to the breaking of glasses (which had been guaranteed unbreakable). As noted previously, that little incident cost me 10 per cent of my annual salary, always retained by the administrators until the end of the year to guarantee ‘reasonable’ behaviour from the residents.

Well, Bernie and I had become firm friends and bore each other no malice. I was grateful to him for giving me such a good roster in my second year and found a grudging respect for his military-like discipline – he had served in the British Army and at that time sported a pencil moustache. For his part, he expected confidentiality from me as he was at the time flirting with Pauline, probably courting her, and they were later married. He expected me to avoid spreading gossip which might undermine his authority.

Bernie Nicholson

D’Arcy, being a shrewd politician, saw it as being all to his advantage to establish a firm rapport with the hospital administration and he acted the perfect host with much bonhomie.

Poor Tookie was always a little on the outer. He was perhaps five feet four inches tall and operated standing on a stool. As a medical student, he had courted my youngest sister Lesley, when she was a nurse at the Adelaide Hospital. I remembered him coming to our house at Woodville and meeting my father, where the conversation inevitably got around to golf. Both played regularly – in fact Tookie was fanatical – and this contributed to his failure to woo my sister as she said he talked of nothing else. In the end, he married Sheila, who was also a doctor, and they had lots of children. Sheila assisted Tookie and they often argued over the operating table. He and I were later on the staff of The Queen Elizabeth Hospital, he as a thoracic surgical consultant and I as a general surgical consultant. He never did do any cardiac operations at TQEH but concentrated on lungs and the oesophagus.

This image was taken in 1960 after I had left the cardio thoracic unit and just before the introduction of the Melrose Bypass Machine that same year. ‘Tookie’ Brown is on the higher stool, Pauline second from the right.

Thus far my recollections in this chapter have been all professional. Well, yes, other relevant things happened in 1959.

I was thinking seriously about what direction in medicine I should pursue and what avenues might be open or closed. Not that I allowed these contemplations to truncate my social endeavours. I had resumed many old friendships and was working at the RAH with Ian Leonard, an old partner in crime during our medical student days. A couple of years before, when we were in sixth year, Ian and I had gone partying on one particular occasion.

It was our custom to arrive at a party and consider its potential as we moistened our palates. He would usually go off in one direction and I in another. On this occasion I tried my luck with one lovely-looking young lady, offering to get her a drink. “I don’t drink,” she replied but didn’t brush me off entirely. It transpired that her name was Margaret Seppelt, a famous name in the Barossa Valley – and it also transpired that I had played in the Uni ‘A’ football team with her brother, Brian. Brian was a large, brawny individual who knew no fear and played centre half back – and later captained the All Australia Amateur team. Apart from being physically fearsome, it was understood you’d be politely respectful of a mate’s sister.

But Margaret seemed keen to keep chatting: “You see that blonde-haired chap over there?”she said. “I think he looks gorgeous. How would you like to introduce me to him?” Well, the blonde-haired chap was my friend, Ian Leonard, merrily enjoying himself across the room.

The rest is history. They became an item and eventually married and went off to Rockhampton Hospital for a year or two.

When I met up with Ian again in 1959, he was engaged to Margaret and I became one of the many beneficiaries of their partnership. Throughout his medical career, Ian had always managed to find girlfriends with access to a vehicle. His own father always caught the tram and had no use for a car – but Margaret’s father would loan him theirs. Ian’s friends, which of course included me, enjoyed great days up at their property at Seppeltsfield. Margaret would emerge from between the vats with not just two or three bottles of wine but a whole washing-basket full. Happy, halcyon days they were, none of us with a care in the world.

Memories provoking nostalgia and a touch of sadness.

Those were the days, my friend,

We thought they’d never end,

We’d sing and dance forever and a day,

We’d live the life we choose,

We’d fight and never lose

For we were young and sure to have our way…

Song by Mary Hopkin

In 1959, when I commenced on Professor Hugh Robson’s clinic at the Royal Adelaide Hospital on Monday, June 1, I was aged 26. All my friends were married. I had never seriously considered taking such a step and had never been in love. Well, the closest I had been was in grade one at the age of six at Challa Gardens Primary School, when I had been infatuated with Rosemary Gwynne, a pretty blonde girl who lived across the road and was in my class. I was too shy to talk to her, so she never had any inkling of course. In grade three she beat me to the top of the class and my sisters did not spare me – “Fancy! Being beaten by a girl!” they teased.

Rosemary eventually married a school friend of mine from Prince Alfred College, Lindsay Fleet, who also played football with me. He was a very nice person and I was glad to bump into them both on the beach at Grange some years later. (Today, 3 December 2021, as I proof read this memoir, I read in The Advertiser of Lindsay’s demise at the age of 87 – a timely reminder that I should hasten with this tome while I can!)

In fifth year Medicine, I had thought I was in love with the nurse I mentioned in Chapter One but, deep down, I knew it wasn’t right. Nevertheless, the experience of being ditched was very painful. There were a few other girls whose company I enjoyed but didn’t pursue seriously.

Socialising on this occasion involved a mixed basketball match: RAH interns v nurses, 1959. I’m on the far left, Frank Altmann far right.

Patients from Professor Robson’s clinic were scattered all round the Adelaide Hospital, which was a big, rambling place. There were even patients down the bottom end of the hospital in Gawler ward, which was next to Frome Road. The other house surgeon working for Hugh Robson was Mal Kidson from Sydney and we took turns being on call every second night. We had to live in and I had accommodation in a block called ‘Glory’ which was above Finders and Light Wards, next to the Botanic Gardens.

On one particular night, in the early hours of the morning, I was woken by a phone call from the night porter, telling me to get up to attend a patient down in Gawler Ward, probably a half kilometre walk to the other end of the hospital. In rather poor grace I obeyed. The call was to replace a Ryles tube which passed through the nose and down into the stomach, keeping the stomach empty.

In this case, the patient had inadvertently pulled out the tube. A simple procedure, I grumbled to myself throughout the long walk and then grumbled at the attending staff nurse, telling her that where I had worked in New Zealand, the sisters did such minor procedures themselves without waking overworked doctors. The nurse duly retorted that when she worked at the Memorial Hospital such too was the case but that at the RAH the nursing staff were forbidden to do this procedure. Having woken me, I then suggested the least she could do was make me a cup of tea with a banana sandwich to go with it.

Yes, you guessed it dear friends! This was the start of a 50-years plus attachment.

In ‘Glory’ I roomed alongside Tom Hanson, who played in the back pocket of the Uni ‘A’s and whom I knew very well. Tom knew everybody’s business, so I casually remarked to him that there was a rather pretty staff nurse in Gawler on night duty. “Oh yes,” he said, quite innocently and without any underlying reference to me. “That’s Sadie Marr. She would make a very good wife for someone, some day.” There, the matter ended.

Smart, too. Sadie Marr with her gold medal, having topped the State examinations

On Saturday, 20th June, 1959, I took Sadie Marr to the pictures. We probably held hands and had a cup of coffee somewhere, I can’t remember. Over the next few months we dated intermittently and enjoyed each other’s company. Sadie left the Adelaide Hospital shortly after I met her and commenced her midwifery training at the Queen Victoria Maternity Hospital. The orthodox pathway in those days, for doctors in training, was to follow a first year internship with six months obstetrics and six months at the Children’s Hospital. I had been accepted for such a roster but had not fully committed myself as training in surgery was my first choice. The possibility remained remote though. Only top students were considered for such training.

The other wild card in my pack was the fact that my brother-in-law, John Fisher, married to my youngest sister Lesley, was currently in London training as a surgeon. I had half formulated the notion that he could be of help to my cause and that if nothing transpired in Adelaide, I could follow them to London, and chance my arm there at getting into surgical training.

Sometime around September, I was invited to Sunday lunch and a tennis afternoon at Sadie’s home in Eudunda, for her parents to look me over. In due course, late on the Sunday morning, I set off in my old Ford Zephyr.

In those days, the route to Eudunda followed the old Sheoak Lodge Rd where there was a long, straight stretch. Ideal, I thought, for testing out the old girl. With gentle coaxing I got up to 95 mph (158 kph) when, suddenly, there was a dreadful noise in the engine, and then silence as it slowed to a stop on the side of the road. What to do now? I did want to turn up on time. I was in my tennis gear, with tennis racquet, so not too intimidating, and two girls in a Morris Minor stopped and offered to give me a lift into Kapunda. When we reached Kapunda, I contacted the RAA agent and explained my predicament. He was none too pleased but, nevertheless, told me to jump into his tow truck and back we went the ten miles or so to my vehicle. A long steel hawser was attached from his truck to my car and I was told to follow him. Not much choice as we were attached. Then followed the hairiest ride I have ever had. He was a mad man, dead set on getting home to Sunday lunch and dead set on teaching me a lesson. The road is hilly and windy coming into Kapunda but this mad man insisted on passing vehicles on dangerous curves, ignoring the fact that I was 30 yards behind him. Several times I was lost my nerve and was tempted to put my foot on the brakes but then considered what would happen if the hawser broke – potentially hurtling back through my windscreen with death being be more certain than the chance of hitting another car going the other way. 

Somehow or another we reached his garage where he locked up my car and told me to ring the following week. By this time it was already 2.30pm and well passed lunchtime. I stood on the corner of the Eudunda Road and eventually someone picked me up and took me the 20 miles to Eudunda, where I arrived at three o’clock.

What a way to make an impression. Lunch was over and tennis had resumed. I sat by myself to gorge the lovely wood oven roast chicken, made polite conversation with Sadie’s parents, and then took my place on the asphalt tennis court. One of my partners during the course of the afternoon was Jim Wiebusch, the local pastor. Was he required to give approval? Probably not but he knew I was not of the Lutheran faith.

It was a good afternoon in the end and Sadie’s parents were friendly, extremely hospitable, and it was apparent that theirs was a very functional family by comparison with my dysfunctional lot. It’s been said one should always take careful note of any potential mother-in-law, expecting your own wife will be that way in 40 years or so. Wanda Marr came through with flying colours.

How did I get back to Adelaide? I had to work the next morning and I vaguely remember another of the guests gave me a lift.

What about my poor Zephyr? It was freighted back to Eclipse Motors and poor, long-suffering Pat Faulkner put in a new long motor for me. He must earnestly have wished he had never met me.

Sadie and her nursing colleague and future sister-in-law Mickey Ewens at the Memorial Hospital. Mickey married Sadi’e’s oldest brother Brian.

Well, our romance progressed and blossomed. I did my best to ingratiate myself with the Marr family and on Tuesday, November 24, I plucked up courage and took Sadie home to Watson Avenue, Toorak Gardens, to meet my mother. My sister Elvia was there and things went well as she was a natural entertainer and loved people, although not as much as animals. A month or so later when things were clearly getting serious, it was decided that the two families should meet.

A dinner was arranged at our house at Watson Avenue. I did not look forward to it, as my parents were rarely on speaking terms. However, as well as my poor parents, my two sisters attended, together with my brother-in-law Jock. They were bright company and experienced entertainers, as well as being in the same age bracket as Sadie’s mother Wanda, so the evening, much to my relief, was a big success.

Sadie was a very serious student when she committed herself to anything. She had topped the state in her nursing exams and wanted a repeat result in midwifery. At the end of November, she decided that, for six weeks, she would spend all her spare time studying and socialising would be off the agenda. At this stage we had made no commitment to each other.

Sadie at TQVH with inmate

Those six weeks were difficult but, for me, it was a time to consolidate my feelings and emotions. I was definitely lovesick and would go for long walks from Watson Avenue up to the Old Toll Gate and back. I found myself doing this regularly; very much out of character for me. I also found myself doing other odd things and I eventually decided on a course of action.

After Sadie’s exams, towards the end of January, we resumed our romance. She had been very disappointed to have been beaten into second place by a mark or so by Sylvia Vaymos, with whom I later worked at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital. At the end of January, I finished at the RAH and had a month to spare before starting my obstetrics at the QVMH. It was a time to augment the dwindling coffers by doing some locum general practice work.

By coincidence, the GP at Eudunda, Doug Bowering, wanted time off, so I contracted to run his practice for two weeks starting on Tuesday, February 2. What a good opportunity it proved to be to get inside the heart and soul of that small, vibrant country town. I had not done any general practice, so often had to excuse myself from the consulting room and go into the next room to refresh my knowledge on the treatment of a particular problem. Being the young locum I was not very busy while the ‘proper doctor’ was away.

On one occasion,I looked in to see the consulting room full to overflowing. But after I had seen the first patient and went to call the second patient, they had all gone. It seemed that someone with the identical car to Doug’s had parked in the driveway and the word had gone around that the ‘real’ doctor was back.

Sadie had had an ingrowing toenail, operated upon by Bob Magarey the week before I started at Eudunda. While she was convalescing at home, I volunteered to dress the toe every few days. Doug Bowering had organised a local woman to come in to cook for me and do the house chores. She would go down the street and do our shopping and I could not resist picking her brains on the street gossip.

“That doctor hasn’t got time to visit me but he’s got plenty of time to visit Sadie Marr – every day!”…and so it went on. Very entertaining, it was.

Sadie’s mother, Wanda, would always provide a good feed at Bruce Street.

The practice itself was an interesting mixture. The Eudunda Hospital was well appointed and well-staffed with an efficient matron. It had both an acute section and a nursing home component and deliveries were performed there. They had a small theatre, with Len Mallen, a competent GP surgeon, coming up from town to operate periodically. I enjoyed the home visits to the surrounding areas. I remember finding my way with difficulty out to an old stone cottage set in an isolated area way out in Stonefield. The sole occupant, an old lady, was in bed, clearly suffering from the DT’s, so I had a look out in the back yard – and stumbled across dozens and dozens of empty wine bottles – delivered to her home and enthusiastically emptied, without the knowledge of her family.

Following this locum, I did another at Mt Lofty. I lived in the doctor’s house, a huge old mansion which was as cold as charity and the fire barely made any difference to the bleakness. On one occasion, Sadie came up to have dinner with me, prepared by the housekeeper, but that was the only bright interlude in the whole fortnight.

After finishing these locums and before starting at the Queen Victoria Maternity Hospital, I called in at the RAH to check my pigeon hole. I was surprised and thrilled to find an aerogram from Toronto but devastated when I realised it had been sitting in my pigeon hole for a whole month. It was from Professor John Duckworth, head of the Anatomy Department at Toronto, offering me a demonstrator’s job for a year in his department starting in September, the beginning of the northern hemisphere academic year. What to do? I was in the midst of a (this time) serious romance, had accepted appointments for the next year and had not really given Canada serious consideration. But time was at a premium and I couldn’t take my time thinking about it. The offer was already one month old.

True to form, I counselled myself, which started when I was very young and has, sadly, become an ingrained habit. My father never offered me any advice during his life, except once, just after I graduated, when he suggested that I keep a separate box under my desk for cash payments, thus remaining undeclared to the tax office! It was not something I took to heart.

My thoughts were – that the Canada offer was serendipitous; right out of left field. Such an opportunity to make a start towards my ideal career was not likely to come my way again. But – the wage was meagre and insufficient to support two people. The fact I would be in a different country meant I could study hard, undistracted. There would still be time to fulfil my obligations to the QVMH, which finished in August – but I would not be able to keep my place at the Children’s Hospital. I would have just a month in Adelaide before starting in Canada. It would be a challenge. But I was ready for a challenge! And so, in February, 1960, I wrote to Professor John Duckworth at the renowned Toronto Anatomy Department, accepting his kind offer and hoping I hadn’t left it too late.

With regard to my romance, I considered that within six months, it would have reached a definitive conclusion, one way or the other.

I rang the Superintendent of the Children’s Hospital, Malcolm Cockburn, and told him that, regrettably, I wouldn’t be attending his clinic as I had a better offer from Toronto. I was unprepared for his response which was violently abusive and finished with a threat: “I will make sure that you never get another appointment in this city!” He hung up. I was too excited to spend much time worrying about it.

On Shrove Tuesday, March 1, 1960, I commenced work as a humble intern at the Queen Victoria Maternity Hospital, formerly known as The Queen’s Home due to it providing free services to the indigent – and the unmarried.

The Queen’s Home, Rose Park, later Queen Victoria Maternity Hospital, 1943

We were given smart, white uniforms which buttoned up to the neck, ‘Dr Kildare’ style. Yes, we did think we looked rather much the part. My jacket, unfortunately, was cut too short and so I looked somewhat ridiculous.

Richard Chamberlain as Dr Kildare in the 70s TV series

It was not an enjoyable six months at the QVMH and only reinforced my suspicion that obstetrics and gynaecology were not for me.                  

The consultants were a strange lot, with strange habits, all very jealous of their own patch and ever-ready to criticise their colleagues. My fellow house surgeons were not particularly remarkable except for the registrar, Hugo von Alpen – a big, blustery Queenslander who was hugely experienced, having spent many years in a solo practice in the outback. Hugo was always entertaining and very competent, with a good pair of hands. He much later delivered my two youngest children.  

We did outpatients, feeling bulging abdomens for correct lies, twins, breeches and so forth; checking blood pressures and urines for albumin and admitting the odd patient who did not conform to certain parameters. There were night time deliveries where the nurses competed with medical students, all trying to get their numbers up. Ward rounds and the odd Caesarian sections; meals in the dining room of reasonable quality.

We saw much of the recently appointed Director of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Les Poidevin, an ex-Japanese POW and also a member of the Davis Cup squad. He tried valiantly to discipline the local obstetricians but they had for too long considered themselves to be among the bourgeoisie. Answering to no-one, they moved among their adoring public, the society ladies, clinging to their outmoded obstetric practices. Their incomes and reputations were impenetrable and so they totally ignored this young upstart from NSW.

Poidevin would have to wait for the next generation of obstetricians appeared to do away with their out-moded obstetric practices. As interns, we watched the battle for progress from the sidelines. There was Roger ‘Poppa’ Wurm wrapping the umbilical cord around his wrist and using his not-inconsiderable weight to tug away at a resistant placenta inside the uterus. It was a procedure totally contrary to modern practice and teaching – but “Quite safe, my boy, but you have to have the experience I’ve got to do it that way!”

There were four interns and one registrar at the Queen Victoria. I had very little in common with the other interns, so workwise and socially it was not a brilliant six months. Why, indeed, did I go there in the first place? It was a fill-in job while I reassessed my future direction. It seemed a good idea at the time and was an orthodox path towards completing one’s training.

The overriding factor had nothing to do with Medicine. Sadie had commenced her midwifery training at the QVMH the previous July or August – and we had unfinished business, as one might say. I reasoned that by doing an internship at the QVMH, it would give us the maximum opportunity to decide if we had any future together. I certainly felt we had but Sadie was undecided and her indecision was not helped by her father, Eric, coming into her room at Eudunda on one occasion and instructing her: “Don’t go messing that young man around!” It was apparent that at least I had good allies on the home front.  

Putting in ‘the hard yards’ at Eudunda, 1960. Sadie’s brother Brian on the far right with Mickey next to him. Wanda and Eric at the back with little brother Peter centre front.

We enjoyed outings together and I spent the odd weekend at Sadie’s home at Eudunda currying favour with her parents. During those weekends we went mushrooming, played golf and attended Church (which, I realised, was a big part of their family life). On one occasion there was a meeting of all the Eckermann clan; on another, I gave a slide show of my New Zealand year. This greatly impressed Wanda, such that I had to give a repeat showing to her friends. Slowly but surely, I was worming my way into the family circle and I felt I was becoming part of the furniture. I was well aware that the pressure was building on Sadie and that she would find it hard to discard that ‘furniture’. I bided my time and behaved impeccably!

We went to the Eudunda Diggers Ball on Friday, May 20. That was a big success but I was embarrassed when Sadie and I slipped back to her house to canoodle in front of the fire in the dark when in came Eric to check the fire. When he put on the light, there we were – Sadie on my lap! Everyone was momentarily speechless. There was really nothing to be said. We all returned to the ball, me somewhat sheepishly.

After that episode I felt maybe something should happen – perhaps it was time for action! Perhaps my indiscretion had expedited matters. The next Friday, May 27, Sadie and I had been invited to a twenty-first birthday party at Freeling. I decided it would be the crunch night. It was make or break. I would propose and it would be once only. If Sadie accepted, all would be roses. If not, that was it. I would take myself off to Canada and immerse myself in an exciting career prospect, moving on to England to chance my arm at the Primary exam.

I picked up Sadie from the nurses home in my trusty Ford Zephyr, replete with its new long motor and travelling much better than when I had bought it from dear Pat Faulkner. We had a good night, a typical country dance with plenty to eat and drink. I would confess to slight – no, significant – apprehension but tried not to show it. I was resolved to act and there was no turning back. What if she should say no? I knew she was a girl of strong character and would stand by what she said. I was by no means confident that her answer would be in the affirmative. I don’t think I had ever said ‘I love you’ – and nor had she. Neither of us wore our heart on our sleeve. We were not given to over-sentimentalism.

The band finished and we said our good nights to Sadie’s brother Brian and his fiancé of one month’s standing, Mickey Ewens. We then set out for Adelaide, making light conversation but with my mind racing. We passed through Gawler and approached Smithfield. I suddenly realised that we would soon be irretrievably in suburbia with all its absence of romanticism. Before we reached Smithfield I slowed and suddenly turned left, just beyond the service station, into Medlow Road.

“Why are we stopping here?” asked Sadie. “It’s very isolated.” I pulled onto the verge and stopped. No, this time canoodling was not on the agenda. What does one say? I had rehearsed it before but the words vanished. I made a brief, hesitant, mumbling dissertation about how hard the future ahead would be, and ending with, “Will you marry me?”

Without a moment’s hesitation Sadie said “Yes”. I was completely taken aback by her instantaneous and positive response. Could it be that my question did not come as a surprise and that she had given it prior thought? I had expected some…well…some sort of negotiated settlement of the question. I had even made contingency plans in the event that the answer had not been in the affirmative – and yes, I had composed a loser’s speech for that eventuality. All unnecessary. I was ecstatic with her answer.! The winner of the British Open at St Andrews could not possibly feel more ecstatic than I felt at that moment. To think that another human being was willing, nay, enthusiastically embracing, the prospect of spending her lifetime with me was difficult to grasp. Perhaps I might have to lift my game!

Well, the rest is history, as they say in the classics. For the present, the arrangement would be confidential as there was much to be sorted out and I was due to leave for Canada in couple of months. We returned to work at the Queen Vic the next week but things were not quite the same. There was a spring in my step. We had to go ring-buying but, this being an area quite foreign to me, my input was minimal. Eventually, one was decided upon and I kept it in with my things at the QVMH. I did bring it out on one occasion for viewing by the Registrar, Hugo von Alpen, and his wife Shirley.

“Oh Shirl,” enthused Hugo, “That’s identical to the one I gave my first fiancé and she never gave it back when we broke up!”

“Is that so,” replied Shirley.

Hugo was a big brute of a man, six feet three and strong and muscular – a genuine Queensland rugby league player. Normally he was rough and ready;

“There’s the reason you can’t get pregnant love,” he said to a patient on one occasion on a ward round. “Uncross your legs!”

Shirl was a slip of a girl with upper class leanings. With her, Hugo was a paradigm of good behaviour. Her father had represented Queensland in the Federal Parliament. He eliminated bad language from his reverberating loud utterances; no coarseness, no hitching up of his genitals. Just quietly, “Yes Shirl”, “No Shirl.”

The next few weeks were busy. There was the Nurses Ball, a passport to obtain, inoculations including smallpox jabs, visas, Canadian dollars and tax clearances. We decided to announce our engagement before I departed. In my naivety, I thought I would slip up to Glasgow on the way back to Australia and pass the Primary Fellowship exam, thus giving us a clean go in married life. We planned to get married the instant I returned in August, 1961.

On Saturday, July 9, Sadie and I travelled to Eudunda for me to seek her father’s permission to marry his daughter. Where was Eric? Up the back in the chook yard, collecting the eggs. I made my way up there amongst the hens and approached him, both of us stooped beneath a low almond tree in the yard, with our shoes sunk in chook manure.

“Yes, it’s been six months hard labour,” I began; an opening he delighted in repeating over many subsequent years. 

[1]By coincidence the author was examined by Lord Russell Brock in his final fellowship examination in London in 1964 and his signature is to be found on the certificate.

[2] Renowned because John Duckworth’s immediate predecessor was the illustrious J.C.B.Grant of  Grant’s Method of Anatomy, used by medical students world wide.

READ Chapter 4

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