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December 15th 2018


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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY The Christ child: a life lived for the whole world

WATER RESOURCES Murray-Darling management delivers the worst of both worlds

CANBERRA OBSERVED Libs fish around for explanations

ASIAN AFFAIRS Taiwanese agree to stick with nuclear power

EDUCATION In support of NAPLAN

VICTORIAN ELECTION Coalition collapse

ECONOMICS AND SOCIETY Mondragon Corporation: humanity at work

BREXIT December 12: D-Day for Britain's EU vote

EUTHANASIA WA Government ignores objections and lessons

TAIWAN Referendum stems homosexual tide

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Free trade and the WTO in the Trump era

MUSIC Teacher teachers: The jarring note in music courses

CLASSIC CINEMA The Adventures of Robin Hood: The one and only

BOOK REVIEW A triumph of determination

BOOK REVIEW An escape from futility and addiction

POETRY

LETTERS

HIGHER EDUCATION Massification: it's the name of the game

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BOOK REVIEW A
triumph of determination




News Weekly, December 15, 2018

THE WEAVER’S SON: Odyssey of an Australian Surgeon

by Donald Hossack

Melbourne UP, Carlton
Paperback: 422 pages
Price: AUD$29.99

Reviewed by Julia Patrick

Donald Hossack’s story is both a personal memoir for his family and a social history of the time. His life in medicine is the backdrop for how he overcame adversity to follow a distinguished career and an immensely fulfilling life of varied interests in art, architecture and politics. It’s an inspiring story.

The son of poor Scottish migrants, Donald suffered the torment of misunderstood dyslexia and at 12 he was virtually illiterate. But by sheer perseverance, determination and an extraordinary memory, he overcame what seemed impossible odds to graduate in pharmacy, then medicine, and was awarded the University of Melbourne’s highest medical award, Doctor of Medicine Honoris Causa in 2006.

Donald’s story begins with his mother, Anne. Working in the Scottish weaving mills, her hopes of marriage were crushed when her lover, infatuated with communism, took off for Russia, and Anne made a sudden decision to accept an offer from the Australian weavers at Geelong. A 24-year-old girl who had never been out of Scotland set out on a five-week trip to an unknown destination, and except for an occasional Christmas card from one of her brothers, none of the family ever contacted her again.

But after working only two weeks at the factory, to her joy and astonishment, her lover, the man who would be Donald’s father appeared.

They rented two rooms in a typical worker’s cottage in Abbotsford and were married on Christmas Day in a ceremony witnessed by two strangers. Anne wore a dress and hat borrowed from her landlady.

They lived there for nearly five years; provisions came in horse-drawn carts, no one had a telephone and contact with the outside world came from a homemade crystal radio. But Donald loved exploring the nearby lake and open country and it was a simple but happy life – until he started school and “the period of my personal hell began.”

Unrecognised in the 1930s, dyslexia meant he could not recognise words nor carry on a reasonable conversation. He couldn’t write or read, except for a few words in comic book balloons, and he was hopeless at ball games. Children avoided him, teachers ignored him as a dunce; friendless and lonely, only his physical size prevented him from being bullied.

Growing up at the time when many men had been called up for World War II, getting jobs should have been easy, but Donald’s lack of basic skills was the obstacle. Then, because no written application was required, he was accepted for a job as laboratory boy in the University of Melbourne’s Zoology Department.

From cleaning blackboards and setting fires in the professors’ rooms, Donald was soon entrusted with overseeing the preserved and live specimens. When frog or snail numbers declined, his happy days exploring the lake and swamps told him where to find them. He would draw specimens for his own interest and by constant repetition could remember their names.

“I was punctual and reliable,” he writes, and he must have had a cheerful, attractive personality, as the professors, notably Agar, Tiegs and Buchanan, saw his dedication and eagerness to learn and encouraged him.

Professor Tiegs corrected his grammar: “I saw you” not “I seen you”, he would say; and Donald would repeat a new word or grammatical correction hundreds of times a day.

He had entered a world that stimulated the latent parts of his brain and it thrilled him. “I realised I was different, but not stupid,” he writes. A vague idea began to crystalise that he, too, could become a student.

But he needed a teaching program that was different from the conventional schoolroom and found it at Taylor’s Teaching College. While still working full time in the Zoology Department, Donald passed six subjects of the Intermediate Certificate in one year.

The professors, having dismissed the idea as fanciful when they’d first heard about it, were absolutely astonished at the achievement and arranged for him to go to University High School. He matriculated, but without enough marks for medicine, which had developed into his main aim, so he opted for pharmacy. After the grind of that four-year course, he was accepted into Medicine in 1949 aged 22.

Throughout his struggle, his mother was constantly supportive, working long hours herself to help support her son’s ambitions, while his father, ever critical of Donald’s constant “study”, was exasperated that he would not find “a proper job – a trade”, like the sons of his father’s contemporaries.

Meanwhile, in 1951 Donald met a girl with a charming Canadian accent. They were married in 1955 and Joan, like his mother, was his unfailing support until her death in 2012.

In 1953, the government was looking for medical students to help improve the health of indigenous peoples in New Guinea. After end-of-year exams, most students were happy to relax or get a paying job, but Donald chose the experience of unpaid work in New Guinea in a “restricted” area, meaning it was dangerous for strangers.

With his companion in charge of this Sepik region, they flew to isolated communities in a small plane, its celluloid windows cracked and broken from tropical storms. Trekking for several hours through slimy mud in narrow ravines or travelling in dugout canoes on the crocodile-infested Sepik River, Donald’s New Guinea experience is a riveting story in itself.

His hair had gone white, his face aged, but back in Melbourne and having completed his internship, Donald knew he wanted to become a surgeon. That meant further study, but Fellowship from the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, and then, after study in England, the British Royal College of Surgeons, was his reward.

Back home in Melbourne, another different, challenging and extremely busy period in his life began: setting up his own private practice, work at Prince Henry’s Hospital and the psychiatric units at Mont Park and Kew, and involve­ment in the Liberal Party.

They brought a large Victorian-style house in Kew; having been divided into five squalid flats, the interior had to be totally demolished. At the time, Melbourne’s old buildings were being pulled down and much of the “new” interior for the Hossacks’ house – fine mahogany doors, classical columns and wrought ironwork – Donald bought from Whelan the Wrecker.

Using a cherry-picker to reach the exotic tower, Donald painted the outside. Then he wallpapered the interior. Joan, meanwhile, coped with an expanding family in a house roofless and insecure.

Able to visualise a building in three dimensions (a factor attributed to his dyslexia), Donald was also designing a country house an hour’s drive from Melbourne; a round, fortress-like structure made from Whelan’s bluestone blocks taken from Melbourne’s old gutters and lanes, it was, as Donald says, ”anything but ordinary”.

Meanwhile, having been involved in the seatbelt legislation, Donald accepted a position as Consultant Surgeon to the Melbourne City Coroner, which involved carrying out autopsies in the morgue to establish the cause of death. High blood alcohol readings in significant numbers of the dead from road crashes convinced him alcohol was a major culprit.

A group of concerned Victorians, impressed by Donald’s findings and statistics, joined him in a campaign to promote random breath testing (RBT) to deter drunks from getting behind the wheel. They were not inspired by money, fame or forwarding their own careers, but by what they felt had to be done to save Victorians from ending up on a cold slab in the mortuary.

They were visionary, dedicated and committed to change, resulting in the first RBT legislation being passed in 1976. Soon adopted in other states, it spread worldwide. Donald, recognised as the leading force behind the change, was awarded the OBE in 1982.

Artistic leanings

Despite growing up in a house without books or paintings, Donald had an instinctive appreciation of art and under­stood “modern” art long before it was generally appreciated. He fitted in an arts course at the University of Melbourne, enjoyed painting and in 1974 became chairman of the Victorian Council of the Arts.

The “name dropping” chapter in his book is a nostalgic reminiscence of his friends both here and overseas. His and Joan’s friendship with the Duchess of Westminster opened doors to the stately homes of England.

Donald Hossack’s book is a very personal story and written with an appealing honesty as he recounts both his failures and the accolades he received, particularly those when he retired from his last position as Director of Surgery in Victoria’s Psychiatric Services, which Donald describes as “the most rewarding” of his professional life.

But, most of all, his story is an inspiration to those who see barriers in their life and ambitions and how one extraordinary man overcame them.


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