Lives of the fellows

Charles Ernest (Sir) Hercus

b.13 June 1888 d.26 March 1971
KT(1948) DSO(1917) OBE(1919) BDS Otago(1911) MB ChB Otago(1914) MD(1921) DPH(1922) FRACP(1939) FRACS(1950) FRCPE(1953) FRCP(1956) Hon LLD Otago(1962)

Charles Hercus was born in Dunedin, New Zealand. His father, Peter Hercus, a New Zealander of Scottish ancestry, manufacturer of woollen goods, lived in Dunedin, and later in Christchurch. He was married to Jane Proctor also of Scottish ancestry, born in Toronto, the daughter of James Proctor, an accountant.

When the family moved to Christchurch Charles attended the Christchurch Boys’ High School. Immediately after matriculation he was articled to a dentist called Paterson. When a dental school was founded at the University of Otago in Dunedin, Charles Hercus registered as a student in 1907, and in 1911 became one of the three first students in the dental faculty to graduate with the BDS. He then joined the medical faculty, graduated in January 1914, and became house physician at the Christchurch Hospital.

When World War I broke out Charles Hercus volunteered for service with the Royal New Zealand Army Medical Corps, and was in the front line throughout the Gallipoli campaign. Later he served in Egypt, Sinai and Palestine, becoming increasingly concerned with the great military importance of preventive measures. In 1917, aged 29, he became DADMS, the youngest to hold such a post in the ANZAC mounted division.

He was concerned in malaria control in the Jordan valley, the last battle of the Palestine campaign being fought and won during the incubation period of malaria. In 1917 Hercus was awarded the DSO and in 1919 the OBE. He had served with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force with distinction from 1914 to 1918, was five times mentioned in despatches and attained the rank of Lt. Colonel.

Hercus was extremely popular and of splendid physique. When the Australian and New Zealand troops ran what is reputed to be the first race meeting held in Palestine, Charles Hercus entered and rode his horse ‘Maori Chief, his groom riding the second string ‘Jean’ in the principal event: "The Promised Land Stakes". Respectively, Hercus and his groom took the first and second place.

When the war ended he returned to New Zealand to join the School Medical Service in Canterbury in 1920, obtaining an MD in 1921, and DPH in 1922. His attention was drawn by Eleanor Baker of the Health Department to regional variations in the prevalence of goitre among school children. It was high in Christchurch but in the harbour of Lyttelton, a few miles away, it was low. This raised the possibility that a difference in the iodine intake might be responsible.

An extended study was made also of inland districts including a survey of the iodine content of the soils. Collaborating with W.N. Benson, professor of geology in Dunedin and C.L. Carter of the chemistry department, it was shown that the distribution of goitre in New Zealand was closely related to the iodine content of the soil. This led to the iodization of table salt in New Zealand and a substantial fall in the incidence of goitre.

Hercus gained a training in bacteriology in the health department and became bacteriologist to the Dunedin Hospital in 1921, and in 1922 he was elected Professor of Bacteriology and of Preventive and Social Medicine at the University of Otago Medical School in Dunedin. He held both of these chairs until 1955.

The Dean of the Otago Medical School at that time, Sir Lindo Ferguson, was a man of distinction and vision. In 1923 Hercus was elected sub Dean. On the retiral of Lindo Ferguson in 1937 Hercus was elected Dean, and held the position by triennial elections until he retired in 1959. He had gained some relief in 1955 when bacteriology separated from preventive medicine.

Hercus gave unremitting application to the cause of medicine and scholarship in New Zealand. He was an early riser and read widely among all topics related to the improvement of health and the development of universities. In addition to being Dean and Chairman of the Medical Faculty he was involved in most medical school committees and made himself freely available to members of the medical school staff. He was a member of the Medical Council of New Zealand, Member of the Board of Health, a member of the University of Otago Council, of the University Development Committee, of the Dunedin Town Planning Authority and he was largely responsible for the inauguration of the Medical Research Council of New Zealand. He was Chairman of the Island Territories Research Committee which is concerned with health problems in Fiji, Samoa and neighbouring Pacific Islands. He was a member of the Nutrition Research Committee, of the Dental Council and of the Council of Physical Education. He was a member of the Defence Scientific Advisory Committee in New Zealand.

In 1964, with Sir Francis Gordon Bell, he published a history of the medical school under the title: The Otago Medical School under the first three Deans. His other publications included sixteen papers concerning goitre and twelve on various aspects of preventive and social medicine and medical education. In 1953 he was honoured by an invitation to deliver the Banting Memorial lecture, for which he chose "Thyroid disease in New Zealand" as his subject.

Throughout his long term of office as Dean, Hercus continually urged and negotiated for expansion of the buildings of the medical school, development of the hospital and the provision of funds for the staffing of departments, expansion of the library, and the prosecution of research.

Such a life depended on the possession and preservation of his natural good health and resilience. Daily he walked both up and down the hill which led to his home; he played tennis well for one who gave little time to it, and he fished. As Dean he regarded it as his official responsibility to entertain visitors to the school. This aspect of a busy life could not have been undertaken without the full support of his wife, a most charming and able hostess.

It was in February 1923 that Charles Hercus had married Isabella (Isa) Rea Jones, whose father, a headmaster, had been born in New Zealand of Irish, Welsh and Spanish ancestry. Her mother, of Scottish ancestry, was also born in New Zealand. By the time of her marriage at the age of 23, Isa Hercus had graduated Bachelor of Home Science and was a junior teacher in the University School of Home Science. There were three children, John, Murray and Mary.

After Sir Charles became disabled his wife nursed him for several years until the physical strain altogether exceeded her capacity.

When he retired he devoted much of his time to the prevention of hydatid disease. This was an important part of his programme for the advancement of preventive medicine in New Zealand, an emphasis no doubt influenced by the illness of his father, who had had hydatid disease of the lung which required surgical treatment.

Sir Charles’s contribution to the development of research in New Zealand was crucial. He was largely instrumental in obtaining a new building housing many of the research groups, together with the departments of pathology, microbiology and preventive medicine. The new building was completed in 1948 and in 1969 was named the Hercus building.

In 1967 Sir Charles was physically incapacitated by a brain stem lesion, which fortunately left his intellect unimpaired. This incapacity lasted until his death at the age of 82 in March 1971. He maintained his great interest in the school and university until the end.

As a man he has been described as the School’s gladiator. In a period demanding expansion of buildings and other facilities the office of Dean was one of great responsibility, carrying with it the unenviable task of adjudicating between competing individuals and departments. At a time when the Otago Medical School was the only medical school in New Zealand the ratio of the number of students to the number of hospital patients became excessive. Sir Charles was responsible for an arrangement by which final year students were subdivided between four main centres, Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin, so providing them with wider clinical opportunities. At each of the four centres there was a branch of the medical faculty and these branch faculties attracted excellent clinicians, and later acquired wholetime medical and surgical units, which furthered both teaching and research. On these foundations a second full medical school has developed in Auckland, and clinical schools have been set up in Christchurch and Wellington.

Sir F Horace Smirk

[Brit.med.J., 1971, 2, 283; Lancet, 1971, 1, 867]

(Volume VI, page 236)

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