Lives of the fellows

Clive Hamilton (Sir) Fitts

b.14 July 1900 d.7 February 1984
Kt(1963) MB BS Melb(1926) MD(1929) DTM Syd(1930) MRCP(1933) FRACP(1938) FRCP(1948)

Clive Fitts, consultant physician, cardiologist, educator, orator, man of affairs and tennis player, was born in Melbourne. His schooling was at Scotch College, Melbourne, and Melbourne Grammar School. He studied medicine at the University of Melbourne during which he was resident at Trinity College. In one appreciation of Clive Fitts, his course through medicine was described a ‘blithe and leisurely with billiards, football and tennis at inter-state level taking their proper place... he liked to think that his example inspired those who decided that an extra year should be added to the medical course’. Fitts’ final year marks were insufficient to secure him a resident post at the Melbourne Hospital after he graduated in 1926 and he was, as he said, ‘banished to the Alfred Hospital’. He was influenced there by a charismatic surgeon, Fay McClure, and become attracted to surgery as a profession. His training in this art was not entirely wasted - TH Hurley, in an appreciation, records that Clive Fitts read a paper ‘High Tracheotomy’. It seems that after his return home from London he did locum work and performed an emergency life-saving tracheotomy in the kitchen of a patient suffocating with laryngitis. He accompanied the patient to hospital, keeping the airway open, only to hear a disdainful admitting officer remark that he had made the cut too high in the neck!

The glamour of surgery notwithstanding, Fitts was destined for medicine. In his early postgraduate years he obtained his doctorate of medicine from the University of Melbourne, and the diploma of tropical medicine from the University of Sydney. He travelled to London, as was done in those days, as a surgeon on a merchant steamer by way of Cape Horn, and was detained a month in Holland waiting for cargo before sailing on to England. He enjoyed the museums and galleries in Holland, an experience which inculcated a life long interest in art. In London, he first obtained a hospital position at the Battersea Anti-Vivisection Hospital. Other possible more formative appointments were at the National Heart Hospital, where he was influenced by Sir John Parkinson [Munk's Roll, Vol.VII, p.443], and at the Brompton Hospital where he developed his skills as a cardiothoracic physician, and established many lasting friendships. In London he furthered his interest in art and, without much bother, he glided through the examination for membership of the College. He worked also at a sanatorium in Switzerland, so adding expertise in the management of tuberculosis to his other talents. He developed a passion for mountaineering, and gained the satisfaction of contemplating the world from the summit of the Matterhorn.

Back in Melbourne in the 1930s, Clive Fitts was initially appointed to St Vincent’s Hospital and subsequently to the Royal Melbourne Hospital, which he served for 20 years. He practised cardiac and thoracic medicine, and in time became Melbourne’s most eminent consultant cardiologist.

Clive Fitts would not have regarded himself as a research physician, but he had a keen and influential interest in the development of research in cardiology in Melbourne. It was his concept that a full-time department of cardiology be established at the Royal Melbourne Hospital and, as a result of his influence among private donors, sufficient funds were raised for a department to be created. In 1956 an appointment was made of the first director, with resources for an associated cardiac catheterization laboratory. He also had a substantial influence in the setting up of the National Heart Foundation in Australia in 1961, and this organization has grown to be a highly important source for promoting advances in cardiology in Australia, and for developing research money for investigation into various aspects of heart disease and hypertension. He also sponsored and supported the concept of cardiac rehabilitation units to act as centres of ‘resurrection from the scrap heap’. He was knighted in 1963 for service to medicine.

Clive was a noted, albeit somewhat controversial, teacher. His teaching style was impeccable but his reputation among students tended to be mixed, because in his bedside teaching he concentrated as much or more on the patient as on the disease. Theorists and students with an eye to examinations found this not always to their liking. Foremost in his interest in patients was their adaptation to their disease and disability and how this could best be modified or augmented - he enjoyed their foibles. He picked up from some untutored patient the term ‘legarthic’, which he enjoyed applying to himself when he appeared sluggish on the tennis court! When asked the secret of success as a respected physician, he said that one needed ‘to create the illusion of timelessness’.

Clive Fitts became very prominent in community affairs in Melbourne. He was for many years chairman of the Felton Bequest Committee and the National Gallery Society of Victoria. He was a member of the council of the University of Melbourne, 1951-67; a Councillor of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, and vice-president 1956-58. He was a president of the Medico-Legal Society of Victoria. He was also a member of council of Melbourne Church of England Grammar School from 1960-69, and was a well known member of the Melbourne Club and president of the Club in 1965.

Many will remember Clive Fitts’ prowess at tennis from the time of his University days when he was a Victorian representative in interstate matches. He maintained a very active interest in tennis throughout his life and his tennis parties at home in Melbourne, or at his seaside place, were a scene of many tense and hard fought struggles. Clive was quite a figure on the court as he often appeared in the dress of yesteryear - clean white flannels - and never failed to follow his serve quickly to the net, where his volleying was faultless. He was heard to remark that when he died he would like to have crossed tennis racquets over his bier. He also had a great fondness for trout fishing, which he enjoyed with his friend John Halliday.

Clive Fitts’ scholarship and his interest in literature were profound. His learning, together with his eloquence and easy wit, led him to be one of Melbourne’s most popular after dinner speakers, his address being marked by pertinence to the topic, enriched by many literary allusions, with a few gentle barbs directed towards aspects of the establishment which had happened to displease him. He was a gregarious, amiable, and very friendly man. But it was said by one of his protégés - and many might agree - that he was just slightly ‘encapsulated’, so that even close associates might wonder how close they had really come to the inner man.

Clive Fitts was married in 1939 to Dr Yrsa Osborne, a daughter of a professor of physiology at the Univerity of Melbourne, and they had two sons and three daughters.

IR Mackay

[Lancet, 1984,1,522]

(Volume VIII, page 152)

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