West Australians rallied to ensure the future of our state, generously donating their time and energy to the cause of WA’s first medical school.

As the Medical School celebrates its 60th anniversary, it is timely to remember that in a State which – as the British Medicine Journal pointed out – had a sparse population “no bigger than an English county”, the drive to start a School of Medicine was a huge challenge.

During the 1940s and 50s, pressure for a teaching hospital had gathered momentum in Western Australia and by 1955 it was considered that Perth’s major hospitals had developed to a level that could support a medical school equipped for the functions of teaching a new generation of doctors. At that time, medical students studied only first-year Science at UWA, completing their degrees at the University of Adelaide or other Australian universities. In 1944 Professor Walter Murdoch lamented that this method of providing the State’s doctors was unjust and wasteful – “Unjust, because it denies to the children of poor parents the chance of entering the profession; wasteful, because it makes no use of the talent or even the genius for medicine which is debarred for financial reasons from finding fulfilment”.

In the campaign that followed, much emphasis was laid on the economic barrier to the training of potential medical students of ‘worth not wealth’, given UWA’s status as the first free university within the British Commonwealth. While attracting some significant benefactions, a 1950 fundraising appeal for a school enjoyed only limited success. Historian Professor Fred Alexander attributed some of the success of the later 1955 appeal to the distinguished foundation professors who raised the School’s profile across the nation. In Campus at Crawley (published by UWA Press) Fred Alexander observed: “The Medical School appeal was unique in more than its financial success. It provided additional testimony to the ability of an influential and well-organised profession to direct the support of its own members…”

When the second appeal was mounted, the timing was right. Post-war optimism ran high and the creation of the School became part of the State’s post-war reconstruction. At the time Perth had three hospitals: King Edward Memorial Hospital for Women, Princess Margaret Hospital and the new Royal Perth Hospital that had opened in 1948. At the end of the war, Western Australia’s population was half a million, however the next decade saw it increase by a third due to a high birth rate, low infant mortality and an influx of migrants.

The establishment of the School became a matter of urgency when, in 1954, the University of Adelaide announced it was unable to continue admitting WA medical students. Like the University of Melbourne, it was facing greater demands for doctors as population figures surged. As the British Medical Journal observed, Perth was one of the world’s most isolated cities: “A community so situated must learn to be self-sufficient and so, even while its population remained no greater than that of many an English county, Western Australia began the task of developing its own cultural and educational centres”.

In 1954 UWA’s Vice-Chancellor Professor Stanley Prescott forwarded to WA Premier Bert Hawke a formal proposal that the School commence teaching in 1957. However, the government remained reluctant to commit, even after the UWA Senate proposed that the University would re-launch an appeal for funds to meet capital costs provided the State met the running costs.…”

“Everybody would like to have it, but nobody really does anything about it…,” lamented the President of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians.

However, in June 1954 the WA Branch of the British Medical Association met with the Premier, stressing the inadequacy of existing laboratory and pathological services in the State and the difficulty of attracting highly qualified personnel in the absence of a medical school. By this time, public sentiment was behind the pressure from the University, local doctors, the press and organisations like the Rotary Club of Perth. In 1955 Premier Bert Hawke responded, establishing a committee to investigate the costs involved. Working rapidly, the committee’s report was soon with the government and an Appeal Committee was established. The Premier confirmed his government’s contribution up to £150,000 towards capital costs and an additional £100,000 for running costs.

The fundraising target was set at £400,000 – a formidable challenge given the State’s modest population. Raising this much money was a momentous task but those charged with the responsibility planned the appeal like a military campaign.

Neville Stanley, the then Professor of Microbiology, would later observe: “Without doubt, the extraordinary feature of the School’s creation was the financial support given by the people of Western Australia”.

Sir Ross McDonald was Chairman of the Appeal Committee, and Professor Stanley Prescott, and the Administrator of Royal Perth Hospital, Joseph Griffith, were Joint Honorary Directors. The committee comprised representatives of the WA Pastoralists’ Association, the British Medical Association, the Chamber of Manufacturers, Rotary International, the Red Cross, the University Senate, Royal Perth Hospital and the Trade Unions.

The committee’s headquarters in the former Kensington Hotel were quickly filled with a flurry of activity as an army of several hundred volunteers reported for duty. The late Professor Stanley (father of UWA’s Professor Fiona Stanley) observed in The First Quarter Century (1957-1982): “From the outset emphasis was placed on the importance of providing the general public with as much information as possible regarding the form and character of the proposed Medical School. This initial program…preceded the direct appeal for money...this educational literature was available throughout the State on the counters of banks, insurance offices, retail stores, schools, government offices, stock firms and local authorities. Leaflets were published in Dutch, German, Greek, Italian, Polish and Yugoslav languages…”

The appeal was launched at a Winthrop Hall ceremony in September 1955 that boasted the ‘pageantry and impressive dignity’ of Queen Elizabeth’s visit the previous year. Sporting and special events kept the appeal in the public eye and the response was wide.

UWA students rallied enthusiastically to mount a street appeal led by Guild President Ted Maslen. This event alone raised £10,000.

The public response was immediate and unbelievably generous. Within two months of the appeal being launched £380,000 was subscribed and money is still steadily flowing in. Everyone in the community has cooperated. Individual contributions, large and small, swelled the total and there is now no doubt remaining that the original target will be quickly passed…

Donations and promises amounting to more than half the appeal target flooded in as newspapers recorded the growing donations from September 1955 and the ABC launched a series of programs to maintain public interest. The British Medical Journal reported: “The public response was immediate and unbelievably generous. Within two months of the appeal being launched £380,000 was subscribed and money is still steadily flowing in. Everyone in the community has cooperated. In town and country, mayors and town councillors, churches and banks, shops, trade unions and industrialists, doctors, nurses and medical students, Rotary clubs, masonic lodges and women’s institutes subscribed – there was no organisation that did not add its quota. Concerts and plays, bazaars and fetes, sports meetings and firework displays vied with each other, and all for the medical school. Individual contributions, large and small, swelled the total and there is now no doubt remaining that the original target will be quickly passed…”

At the time the State’s population of 639,750 was served by 580 practising doctors. This represented one doctor for every 1100. Today the ratio is one for every 289.

Less than a year after the launch, the Appeal Committee proudly announced it had commitments in excess of its target. Teaching at the Medical School began in 1957, the year in which the Raine Bequest was launched. This bequest alone of £1million was nearly twice that raised by the public appeal and equates to about $45million in today’s money. In that year both the first and final years of the course were taught. Sixteen students, who had done their first pre-medical year at Crawley and further studies in Adelaide, returned for their final year. By 1959 all years were catered for, and the degrees of Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery were conferred for the first time at the end of 1959.

The headquarters of the Faculty of Medicine and teaching facilities for Pathology and Microbiology were accommodated at the old Royal Perth Hospital, adjacent to the new hospital. The Anatomy and Physiology departments began life in two large army huts in the grounds of the University, while a medical library took shape in the disused outpatient hall.

The University established eight new chairs – in Medicine, Surgery, Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Child Health, Pathology and Microbiology, Anatomy, Physiology, and Biochemistry – and posts were advertised in the United Kingdom and Australia.

In 1958 the Perth Chest Hospital (renamed Sir Charles Gairdner in 1963) was opened and immediately designated a teaching hospital. In 1977 the enlarged medical complex became the Queen Elizabeth II Medical Centre. “The establishment of such an array of chairs in such an atmosphere of lay andacademic enthusiasm…must provide the professors who will be appointed an opportunity for co-operation and constructive development of the new school,” reported the British Medical Journal. Australia, the journal noted, was a land of opportunity. “Western Australia considers it has as much if not more to offer…as any other State…It counts the establishment of the new medical school in Perth, the opportunities this will bring for undergraduate and postgraduate training, and the enhanced standards of medical care that must follow not least among the advantages which it will have to offer.”

Professor Stanley noted that the wide community involvement was unique in the founding of a medical school anywhere in the world. “The coming of the ‘Founding Professors’ aroused a great deal of widespread interest and was hailed with warm enthusiasm by many sections of the community…” wrote the professor.

“The School of Medicine has a special relationship with the Western Australian community. The School arose out of the dreams of a few, and these dreams were translated into reality by the donations of ordinary citizens. The School belongs to the public of Western Australia and I believe that, more than any other Faculty, and more than any other medical school in Australia, our School is cherished by Western Australians.”

Sources: UWA Archives; Campus at Crawley by Fred Alexander (UWA Press); The First Quarter Century (1957-1982) Editor: Neville Stanley; British Medical Journal, March 3, 1956.

This article was originally published in UniView Magazine Spring 2007, by editor: Doug Durack, with references to today's numbers updated.

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