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Think Piece – Remembering our medical heroes…

Thursday 15 October, 2015

annette summers

This week we commemorated the 100th anniversary of the First Anzac Day held in Adelaide on 13 October, 1915.  The grief being felt at home 100 years ago was palpable, hence the overwhelming need for the homefront to do something for those wounded soldiers who were returning home.  No-one had anticipated the scale of the impact the war would have either for those who had lost loved ones, or those whose loved ones returned home broken and damaged; both physically and mentally.

It is important to remember the contribution made by our medical servicemen and women who were the first to face those casualties from Australia’s involvement at Gallipoli.  They worked on hospital ships the Karoola and Kanowna,  in extreme conditions and gave everything they had to ensure those who could be saved were.  We have much to thank these medical heroes for as we honour all those who served throughout the centenary period.

Writing Blood, Sweat and Fears especially for the Anzac Centenary gave me a wonderful insight into the lives of those many South Australian medical practitioners and students who served during World War 1.

While each and every one of their stories is interesting in its own way, it was not so much their military history, but the stories that surrounded their professional and private lives before and after their service I found most fascinating and most interested to share.

Writing their stories also gave me contact with the many descendants of these remarkable men and women. Some of their stories are courageous, some are tragic, while others record the impact their actions on the battlefields of World War 1, still have on our society today.

One such example is Sir Hugh Cairns. Sir Hugh went to Gallipoli as a medical student. In fact his military records for Gallipoli describe him as a nurse. He returns to Australia to complete his medical studies and immediately heads back to the battlefront, serving in France from 1917.  After the war Sir Hugh took an interest in neurosurgery, and in 1935 he is called to treat T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia). Lawrence had been involved in what was to be a fatal motorbike accident. From his experience of this tragedy, Cairns, who then became a Brigadier in World War 2, advised the Australian War Ministry that all despatch riders should wear helmets. Thus he set into place the laws for wearing helmets that all motorcycle and bicycle riders must abide by today.

Mildred George is another biography that fascinated me. Mildred graduated from Medicine at the University of Adelaide with MB BS in 1914. She did not serve overseas, and in fact spent the whole of the war in Adelaide serving at Adelaide hospital as a resident medical officer. She was identified in the University of Adelaide honours list as a Captain in the Army. There is virtually no official account of her service, but we do know anecdotally that she served in some way. Following the war Mildred George became a champion of women and children who were victims of domestic violence. She married and moved to Perth where she established her own private medical practice, later becoming honorary assistant gynaecologist at the Perth Hospital from 1922. In 1933, on the night of the 4/5th February, during a voyage to England, she disappeared without trace. The circumstances of her death were never discovered. Just by pure chance Mildred George’s nephew, from Victoria, had contacted the University of Adelaide for information about his Aunt. As a result of our research into her curious story we were able to provide him with more knowledge about his Aunt’s life than his family had previously known.

Finally, the sad story of Clive Britten Burden; son of the founder of Burden the Chemist – the well-known pharmacy store in Adelaide. Burden studied medicine at the University of Adelaide and enlisted in 1916. He served in France in a Field Ambulance, but contracted measles after spending a month in the trenches. He was invalided to the 3rd London General Hospital in Wandsworth in April 1917. Whilst on day leave from the hospital, and on the platform of the Victoria Station underground, he fainted and fell in front of an oncoming train. He is recorded as saying;

“Is it not rotten luck that, after being for months in France, this silly thing should happen to me? I fainted and fell, because I felt weak and ill.”

He had to have both his legs amputated and tragically died from this accident in May 1917.

It is these stories and many others that brought these people to life for me and my co-authors. The contact we had with relatives of the book’s subjects, significantly enhanced our appreciation of the need for this commemoration of the centenary of World War 1. I encourage anyone with an Anzac story to find the time to write it up and share it, during this period of national reflection. The insight and learning we will all gain from sharing these stories far outweighs the time and effort required to complete them.


Blood, Sweat and Fears; medical practitioners and medical students of South Australia who served in World War 1 (2014) Christopher Verco, Annette Summers, Tony Swain and Michael Jelly, Openbook Howden,  St Marys, South Australia.

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