Lives of the fellows

Edward (Sir) Ford

b.15 April 1902 d.27 August 1986
Kt(1960) OBE(1945) MB BS Melb(1932) DTM Syd(1938) MD Melb(1946) FRACP(1946) DPH Lond(1947) FRCP(1958) FACMA FRSH FZS Hon LittD Syd(1971) FRAHS Hon FRCPA

Edward Ford was born in the small country town of Bethanga in north eastern Victoria, Australia, the son of Edward John Knight Ford and Mary Doxford, née Armstrong, and in 1908 came to Melbourne with his family to commence his education. In 1918 he obtained high marks in the public service examination and entered the postal service where he worked until 1928. He wanted to study medicine at the University, but found it necessary to obtain the required certificates for entry. These he obtained by attendance at night classes. He entered the medical school in 1926, still working in the postal service and supporting himself by coaching students at home. He graduated with distinction in 1932. Twelve months were spent in clinical work at the Melbourne Hospital and at the end of 1933 he was appointed Stewart Lecturer in anatomy at Melbourne University, becoming senior lecturer in anatomy and histology from late 1934 until December 1936.

At the anatomy department he came under the influence of Frederic Wood Jones whom he greatly admired, and with whom he shared an interest in physical and cultural anthropology. It was Wood Jones who fostered Ford’s interest in book collecting and the history of medicine. Their friendship continued until the death of Wood Jones in 1954.

In 1937 Ford left Melbourne to become lecturer in the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine at Sydney University, and having obtained his DTM early in 1938 was asked by the Papuan Administration to undertake a survey of native health, particularly malaria and venereal disease, in New Guinea, the Trobriand Islands, Goodenough Island and the D’Entrecasteaux Group. The survey extended from early 1938 to the middle of 1939 and he found this field work absorbing and demanding, but richly rewarding - specially when the area later become involved in war. At the same time he made a study of the cultural heritage of the Papuan people.

On his return to Sydney, he next went to Darwin as medical officer in charge of the Commonwealth Health Laboratory until 1940, when he was released so that he could enlist in the Army, taking command of the 1st Australian Mobile Bacteriological Laboratory, with the rank of major, and being posted to the Middle East.

During the Syrian campaign he worked first at Nazareth investigating cases of malaria, sandfly fever and dysentery. Later, with the occupation of Syria, he moved to Tripoli with a casualty clearing station to provide all laboratory investigations.

Japan entered the war in December 1941 and by January 1942 had captured Rabaul. This direct threat to the safety of Australia resulted in troops being returned from the Middle East for service in Malaya and New Guinea. Ford was appointed assistant director of pathology to the New Guinea Force with the rank of lieutenant colonel, but unofficially acted as its malariologist. Here he made his most important contribution to the problems of malaria in the field among troops at first untrained and ill-equipped to cope with the situation. It was at Milne Bay that the problems became critical. In September 1942 the malaria rate among the troops there was steady at 33 per thousand per week, but later this rose to 82 per thousand, and in the week ending 25 December 1,083 men were admitted to hospital out of a force of 12.000. Had this alarming increase in rate continued the whole force would have been lost in less than three months.

The medical services were unable to obtain adequate supplies as priority was given to combatant stores, and attempts to tighten up poor malarial discipline produced only a weak response. An appeal was therefore made to the commander in chief and, through the DDMS, Brigadier W W S Johnston, Ford obtained an interview with General Sir Thomas Blarney in December 1942. Quite bluntly he pointed out that malarial discipline was bad and should be an integral part of unit discipline, that personal protection must be enforced and breaches of discipline visited by punishment, and that there must be a steady and unfailing supply of all anti-malarial material, especially quinine and atebrin. He pointed out that the medical units had been evacuating 300 men a week for weeks past and that this could not be allowed to continue. He asked for higher priorities for all malarial work, particularly increased quantities of equipment and stores for mosquito control, and for 1000 men for additional labour. Ford received an immediate response from Blarney, and an intense anti-malarial campaign began at once. Discipline was tightened, the wearing of protective clothing and the taking of atebrin in suppressive doses made compulsory. Within a short time the malaria rate started to fall.

In March 1943 Ford was appointed senior malariologist to the Army and, because one was not available, prepared a memorandum on malaria, illustrated by maps of the hyperendemic areas, which was widely circulated to all Australian and American units and to the British Forces in Burma: Malaria in the south-west Pacific, Australian Military Forces Publication. 1943. This short, but comprehensive and masterly acccount, was written over the course of three days while he was on leave in Sydney, but his name does not appear as the author. At the request of the British Army he visited Burma to discuss anti-malarial control: his recommendations being accepted without modification.

The director of medicine, Brigadier (later Sir Neil) N H Fairley [Munk's Roll Vol.VI, p.171] recommended the establishment of a malarial research unit at Cairns and this became a most important centre for all aspects of investigation into the problems of malaria. In June 1944 Fairley convinced a conference of the Australian General Staff of the effective use of atebrin and that unit commanders should be made responsible for the proper dosage to be regularly taken. Orders were immediately issued to this effect, with the result that suppressive measures were taken out of the hands of the medical services and made the responsibility of combatant commanders.

By the end of 1944 malaria was largely under control. This followed dedicated work by all sections of the medical services, but there can be no doubt of the great importance which must be given to the outstanding contribution made by Ford in the field. In the latter stages of the war Ford was director of hygiene, pathology and entomology for the Army, with the rank of colonel. For his work he received the OBE (Mil.) in 1945 and had been mentioned in despatches in 1943.

After the cessation of hostilities Ford returned to Sydney University and, in 1946, was awarded a Rockefeller Fellowship to study at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and in the same year obtained the MD (Melb) with a thesis on malaria and anti-mosquito methods. In 1947 he received the DPH (Lond) and returned to Sydney to become director of the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine and professor of preventive medicine at the University. These positions he held until 1968. when he retired. He was responsible for many changes in the School; the building was enlarged, the staff increased and all activities expanded. His skill as an administrator was seen both inside and outside the University. From 1953-57 he was dean of the faculty of medicine and a fellow of the senate. From November 1960 to March 1961 he was acting vice-chancellor. He had received a knighthood in 1960.

He took part in the planning of the medical school of the University of Western Australia and was a member of the first council of Macquarie University, as well as being a member of the committee on the future of tertiary education in Australia. He served on the council of the National Health and Medical Research Council, being chairman of two of its committees; on the World Health Organization in the field of medical education and research, and as a member of the New South Wales State Cancer Council. He was a member of the board of the Sydney University Press and, with his friend Sir John Ferguson, was active in the formation of the Friends of the Library of the University of which he acted as president from 1962-72, when he became patron. Sir Edward was active in the affairs of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians to which he had been elected a Fellow in 1946. He served on the editorial committee of the Australasian Annals of Medicine (now the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Medicine) from 1951-65; on the research advisory committee 1952-63; on the committee on occupational health, and was vice-president of the College 1970-72. In 1958 he became curator of the historical library of the Australasian College and chairman of the library committee, both of which he held until his death. During his curatorship the library grew significantly in stature as an important reference collection in the history of medicine, but especially in relation to Australian medicine, for he had presented to the College his collection of 19th-century medical works by Australian authors which formed the basis for his Bibliography of Australian Medicine l790-l900, published by the Sydney University Press in 1976, a magnificent reference work on which he had worked for many years. He bequeathed his large collection of early printed books on medicine to the College.

Throughout his life he was always interested in the history of medicine and this is reflected in his publications, and in the orations which he was frequently called upon to give. At first his papers dealt with physical anthropology, but after the war they became more biographical and bibliographical, always with the evidence of careful research. In 1950 he wrote ‘The malarial problem in Australia and the Australian Pacific territories’, Med J. Aust., 1,749-760. This is a classic account of the problem, but his own very significant contributions are not mentioned.

In 1969 he was the first recipient of the Neil Hamilton Fairley medal, awarded by the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and the Royal College of Physicians of London in alternate years, which was presented on the occasion of the Arthur E Mills Memorial Oration, when he spoke of the life of his great friend Sir Neil, with whom he had worked so hard during the war. His last few years were marred by illness which curtailed his activities but not his spirit.

In appearance Ford was tall, with a large frame, and one was surprised at the quiet gentleness which was present. He was a modest, retiring, almost shy person with great common sense and wisdom, but his gentleness masked a firmness and strength of character which only occasionally needed to be expressed. When he spoke in his characteristic, rather hesitant way he commanded instant attention, and this was very evident when on committees or other administrative occasions, for he was fearless and firm in debate. Always delighted to meet his friends, the greeting given to those who were close to him was often boisterous. To all with whom he came in contact he was most courteous, and those who came to him seeking advice or help seldom left without the assistance they sought. He had a keen sense of humour, often shown by a chuckle or a twinkle in the eye, and a sharp wit with an apt turn of phrase or well chosen anecdote. He was a staunch friend, who always showed his never failing kindness and help, particularly in sickness. Very fond of children, his nieces, nephews and godchildren returned his affection to the full, being always delighted to see him and be with him. He had not married.

Generous almost to a fault, he was a great letter writer to his family and many friends; letters which were informative, giving freely of his knowledge, particularly to fellow book collectors, or just giving details of his day to day events. Letters to children were illustrated with sketches, often of flowers for he was keen on botany, never letting an opportunity go by without a visit to the botanical gardens in the cities he lived in or visited. As a form of relaxation, whenever possible he walked to his destination with a slow, deliberate step, never in a hurry.

He enjoyed listening to good music and good conversation, being an excellent host with a keen knowledge of food and wine as well as being a competent cook. He collected the works of many artists whom he knew personally and was a very discriminating bibliophile. He possessed documents or letters signed by Samuel Pepys, Captain James Cook, Charles Darwin, Florence Nightingale and others. At one time he became interested in scrimshaw and taught himself the art of engraving the teeth of whales. Indeed, there were few aspects of art on which he did not have knowledge.

In all he was one of the most remarkable medical men that Australia has produced.

KF Russell

[RACP College Newsletter March 1978,10,1,p. 1; April 1979,11,1]

(Volume VIII, page 158)

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