Lives of the fellows

Cecil John Hackett

b.25 April 1905 d.8 April 1995
MB BS Adelaide(1927) DTM&H(1930) MRCP(1931) MD(1934) PhD Lond(1951) FRCP(1951)

Cecil Hackett’s career was unorthodox but his work on yaws coloured a drab corner of tropical medicine with hope and eventual success. He was born in Norwood, South Australia. His father, Richard Hackett, was a horticulturist, and his mother, Bertha (née Tohl), came from a farming family. Hackett’s early education centred on Adelaide where he attended Queen’s School and afterwards St Peter’s School. He then entered Adelaide University to read medicine. As a student he was a member of several expeditions to the arid regions of central Australia. During one excursion he visited Ayers Rock, then a little known feature of a relatively unexplored area.

After qualifying in 1927 he came to London and studied at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, obtaining the diploma in 1930. He then took up a post at the Lester Research Institute in Shanghai, but shortly afterwards developed tuberculosis and returned to his native Adelaide to recover. During this period he underwent an experience which made a deep impression on him and explained his future dedication to the disease of yaws. He took part in an expedition to the northern part of the Great Victoria Desert where, in the vicinity of the Musgrave mountain range, he studied the lives of the Pitjantjatjara, a community of nomadic hunter-gatherers who sustained the party during the hardships of the exploration. Hackett studied their way of life and their struggle against disease. He became increasingly concerned with physical anthropology which he researched for a while at Adelaide University. He obtained his MD in 1934 and took up a post in the physiology department. He wrote the first of his four monographs on yaws, Boomerang leg and yaws in Australian aborigines, London, Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, 1936. Not long afterwards he returned to England and worked in the anatomy department of Cambridge University.

In 1937 he obtained a senior research fellowship from the Medical Research Council which enabled him to undertake two six-monthly visits to Lango in northern Uganda to study the clinical effects of yaws. He called it ‘the disease at the end of the road’ and the remoteness of the districts where he worked was an ideal environment in which to discover examples of all stages of the infection. He was a splendid photographer and built up a veritable library of illustrations which he was later to publish.

This work was interrupted by the Second World War and in 1940 he joined the RAF. He was engaged in the control of malaria among detachments in various parts of the tropics such as Sierra Leone, Egypt and Burma. Somehow he found time to take clinical photographs of yaws and other tropical conditions to expand his remarkable collection. In 1945 he left the service with the rank of wing-commander and his career took a new turn.

The Wellcome Museum of Medical Science in London had closed during the war and Hackett was appointed as its new director. Formerly the museum had embraced the world of medicine and hygiene at undergraduate level. He took a radical approach and converted it into a postgraduate teaching museum of tropical medicine. He introduced a system of continuous up-dating and revision, constructed bays for personal study and replaced museum jars with custom-built perspex containers for easy handling. He wrote up the results of his researches in Lango and presented it to London University as a thesis which merited him a PhD. It was published as a monograph entitled Bone lesions of yaws in Uganda, Oxford, Blackwell Scientific Publications, 1951. Close links were forged with the nearby London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and he lectured regularly to its students.

After eight years of academic and curatorial work in London he joined the World Health Organization in 1954 and became involved in its world-wide yaws eradication programme based upon the mass administration of penicillin. The astonishing success of these campaigns, which practically wiped out yaws from the face of the tropical world, is part of medical history and there is little doubt that Hackett played a significant role in its achievement. He retired from the organization in 1965 - as early as possible - for reasons which are unclear. The rigid hierarchical structure at Geneva and its cosmopolitan intrigues would not have been much to his liking. Perhaps he also realized that the chronic, mutilating and painful condition of which he had made a lifelong study had at last been relegated to the status of textbook curiosity, of interest only to medical historians.

After his retirement he embarked on an investigation of yaws in its anthropological and historical context. Before long he became concerned with its relation to syphilis, spending many hours in the study of old bones harboured in museum collections. He was intrigued by cribra of the orbital plate and structural alterations due to syphilis and other osteological infections. This led him into the age-long controversy concerning the origins of syphilis in Europe and the endemic syphilis of the Near East.

He married Bessie in 1939 and they had two sons. ‘CJ’, as he was known to the cognoscenti, impressed his colleagues with his boyish enthusiasm. He recounted his varied experience with an eager, entertaining, breath-taking stream of reminiscence. He was outspoken, sometimes inviting unpopularity among his peers, but sincerity and good humour were the hallmarks of his character. He died of Alzheimer’s disease within reach of his 90th birthday.

A Duggan

[Brit.med.J.,1995,311,682]

(Volume X, page 181)

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