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Think Piece – South Australian Medical Practitioners and Medical Students who served in World War 1

Friday 31 July, 2015

Dr Verco - Think PieceTwo hundred and five medical practitioners and medical students connected to South Australia served in World War One (WWI). They ranged from the 65-year-old Professor Archibald Watson, the charismatic professor of anatomy at the University of Adelaide, to the 18-year-old medical student, Hugh Cairns who subsequently gained a Rhodes Scholarship and became the first Professor of Surgery at Oxford University, Brigadier Cairns in World War Two (WWII) and later Professor Sir Hugh Cairns.

The first Australian to die on active service with Australian forces in WWI (11/9/14) was the Sydney doctor, Captain Brian Pockley. At the time of his death, the incorrect report of the death of South Australian doctor Lieutenant J LeM Kneebone had been reported (14/9/14).

A number of those who served joined the pantheon of war heroes with significant military decorations; this included 12 who were decorated with the Companion of the Distinguished Order and  19 who were decorated with either a Military Cross or Military Medal.

A number went on to considerable professional success and leadership in Australia and the United Kingdom and 14 were knighted later in life for their contribution. Founders of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons and the founding presidents of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Radiologists and the Australian Society of Anesthetists all came from this group. Some were succeeded in the medical profession by their sons and grandchildren.

Nine lost their lives; seven as a consequence of enemy action. One is mindful of those who have no known grave; Captain Reginald Blockley Lucas MBBS (Adelaide, 1913) was killed in action on 3 July 1916 and Lieutenant Alan Wilson Morey MC, medical student, Rhodes scholar, pilot with the Royal Flying Corps and already crippled by war injury, who, after colliding with a German aircraft fell over 8000 feet to his death.

‘Blood, Sweat and Fears: Medical Practitioners and Medical Students of South Australia who served in World War 1’ (2014) by Verco, Summers, Swain and Jelly documents, in 203 one page biographies, the story of those South Australian medical practitioners and medical students who served in the armed forces during WWI. Each author gained a greater insight in to the lives of our predecessors and each has her/his own heroes.

War is always horrific and I am in awe of the courage in the face of the enemy, tolerance of the military and all its ways and fortitude of life in awful circumstances exhibited by all of Australians who served overseas in WWI.

My own medical heroes comprise all who went forward armed with a few bandages, splints, morphine and stretchers.

I think of Dr FN LeMessurier DSO MD, Dr LW Jeffries DSO OBE and Sir Samuel Burston KBE CB VD FRCP(Ed) FRACP; all rescued the wounded under fire. It is recorded that Dr Jeffries carried the wounded to relative safety on his back and Sir Samuel wore a gas mask for 24 hours retrieving and treating the injured.

I also think of the surgeon Major John Corbin who transferred out of 1 Australian Stationary Hospital to 1ACCH so that his surgical expertise could be utilised; consequently he landed mid-morning on 25 April 1915 at Anzac Cove and treated over 3300 casualties in the first 4 days. There are many like him currently in the Australian Defence Health Service.

To advance to provide comfort, companionship and care to the distressed and injured requires great compassion and consideration of others before self.

Looking back allows us to contemplate the future and bear in mind John Maxwell Edmonds lines (1919)…

‘When you go home, tell them of us
For your tomorrows these gave their today’

We are lucky not to have similar experiences; in my own family my grandfather graduated MBBS (1913) and during his house surgeon year joined the Australian Army Medical Corps and served in the Gallipoli campaign, in England and France, my father graduated MBBS (1942), joined the Royal Australian Army Medical Corps and served in New Guinea. I graduated MBBS (1972) and my daughter MBBS (2009); we have lived without the specter of war over us.

We must all give thanks, publically if one must, but certainly privately for the sacrifice of our forebears  and recognise that the freedoms we enjoy are not, nor ever have been, cost free.

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 5042   p230

Dr Verco a Senior Lecturer – Senior Consultant in Obstetrics and Gynecology at Flinders Medical Centre and Flinders University.  He is a Group Captain in the Royal Australian Air Force and has served overseas in Malaysia, Bougainville and East Timor. He is also a coauthor of ‘Blood, Sweat and Fears; medical practitioners and medical students of South Australia who served in World War 1’ (2014).  He was Hon ADC (Air) to HE the Governor of South Australia, Sir Marc Oliphant from 1973-1976, Director of Health Reserves in SA, and variously in NT and WA, from 2001-2009 and Chairman of the Obstetrics and Gynecology Consultative Group 2001-2002. He is a former Chairman of the Army Health Services Historical Research Group and the Chairman of the ‘2014 Project’ Committee. He is a former President of the Australian Salaried Medical Officers Federation and of the South Australian Salaried Medical Officers Association. He was the first chairman of the Australian Clinical Casemix Committee (Commonwealth Department of Health) and of the Clinical Advisory Committee of the SA Health Commission.

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