Lives of the fellows

Felix Wilfrid Arden

b.20 April 1910 d.16 May 2002
CBE MB BS Adelaide(1931) MD(1934) MRCP(1936) FRACP(1972) FRCP(1974) MD Hons Queensland(1987)

Felix Arden was a consultant paediatrician in Queensland, Australia. His story really begins with Winifred, his mother, a small, feisty woman, who, in revolt against the traditions of her Quaker family, joined the Anglican church, trained as a nurse at Charing Cross and left England to work in Singapore, where she soon met and married a young rubber planter, Stanley. He had been a botanist and a curator of orchids at Kew Gardens before being sent to the colony to establish rubber growing there.

Initially, their life together was good: they had four sons, of whom Felix was the second, and a comfortable life on a plantation in Penang. Tragically, the idyll did not last: within a few years, Stanley had been struck down with a tropical fever (possibly Japanese B encephalitis) which left him confined to a wheelchair, and the third son died of diphtheria on his first birthday. The family returned to England when Felix was three, where they lived in poverty but great respectability.

Felix gained admission to St Edward's School, Oxford, on a scholarship, and sped up his education by skipping whole years of schooling. At the age of 15, when the family left England for Adelaide, a site chosen as being part of the Empire, flat enough for his father's self-propelled wheelchair and with a climate suitable for gardening, he had already matriculated to university.

In Adelaide, Felix enrolled to study medicine - a slightly-built lad whose voice had not yet broken. At that time, the official age of entry to Adelaide University was 16, and he delayed producing his birth certificate as proof of his age (claiming that it was, with his luggage, aboard a slow boat from England) until after his 16th birthday, by which stage he was allowed to stay on. He supported himself through his course by tutoring other medical students in the year below himself, even though they would all have been his senior in years, and graduated in 1931.

Soon after graduation Felix launched into research for a doctorate on salt and water metabolism, using rabbits and himself as his experimental subjects: his thesis, which was accepted in 1934, reached the conclusion that 'there appears to be an hormonal mechanism in the renal excretion of sodium and potassium'. He then embarked as soon as he could on the examinations for membership of the College.

He returned to Adelaide and was appointed superintendent of the Adelaide Children's Hospital. Earlier, while he had been a medical officer at the Adelaide Children's, he had met Dorothy Ray, the kid sister of a friend of his, who was a nurse at the same hospital, and they conducted a somewhat clandestine courtship, as trainee nurses were not expected to go out with young doctors, and were engaged. Felix was later appointed to the superintendency of the Hospital for Sick Children in Brisbane, where they moved a little before the Second World War started.

The war period was, for Felix, both a busy and an exciting time. He would clearly have loved to have enlisted and tried to do so, but was directed to stay as superintendent by the medical coordination committee that was responsible for the placement of all doctors over the period. Not having got to the war was, strangely, one of the major disappointments in Felix's life, and he suffered the real and perceived slurs that those who stayed behind met, even though his staying was not by his own choice.

Those years at the Children's Hospital were, though, hard and rewarding years for him, as he carried the medical, surgical and administrative responsibilities of the hospital, with a very small staff. He also found time to publish papers on several topics, including laryngotracheobronchitis, suggesting for the first time in medical literature that its cause was probably viral, and tracheostomy for diphtheria. He also reported on a series of six cases of neonatal ruptured liver, one of which he successfully repaired, the first successful operation of this type in the world. The report in the Year book of paediatrics drew from the editor, Sydney Gellis, the observation 'The author is to be commended for the recognition of this syndrome and for pointing out that rupture of the liver is one of the hazards of post maturity.'

He was also adept in the repair of cleft palates in children, though this did give rise to some tensions within the home, as his technique involved the use of a soft splint that was sewn in to take the strain until the repair had strengthened; the only suitable material he could find for this was a pair of very posh, heavy nylon braces that Dorothy had given him as a present. With each operation, another half inch was cut from the end of the braces (being a short man, there was some leeway) until they entirely disappeared, bit by bit, in the operating theatre.

Towards the end of the war, when there was a massive US Army camp in Victoria Park, opposite the hospital, word seeped through of the new 'wonder drug' penicillin, which they were using, though it was not yet available to civilians. Felix made quite a few trips across the road, cap in hand, to see his US Army counterparts, and he was always able to come back with some penicillin from the generous Army surgeons.

For the family, though, there was personal grief. Between them, Felix and Dot had five pregnancies, of which only two children survived, with a neonatal death and two stillbirths at term; some of the deaths were due to rhesus incompatibility, and it was a sad irony that although Felix played an important part in bringing the technique of exchange transfusion to Queensland, done in those days with a live donor lying on a couch next to the infant's cradle, the technique arrived just too late to be available to Felix and his wife.

Soon after the war, Felix moved into private practice, though he remained a visiting consultant at the hospital, and in private practice his career flourished. Although he virtually ceased surgery and although neonatology gradually became its own subspecialty within the wider field of paediatrics, Felix ran a busy practice as a consultant and was widely respected. He was a superb diagnostician, with an eye that caught the finest detail. He was careful and painstaking in his work, and invariably gentle and patient with both children and with their anxious parents.

In addition to his clinical work, Felix was involved in his professional associations and, if only briefly, in medical politics - he was a member of the Medical Board of Queensland and on the state council of the then British Medical Association, serving as president for a year. He was one of the small group of paediatricians who inaugurated the Australian Paediatric Association in 1950. In 1974 he was the president of the Association, and was still involved (later being elected to honorary life membership) when the Association became the Royal College of Paediatricians. This College later merged with the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, and Felix was elected a fellow of that College in 1972. He was elected to the Fellowship of the College in 1974 and was awarded an honorary doctorate of medicine by the University of Queensland. In 1983, he was named Queensland Father of the Year and in 1984 he became a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, for his services to paediatrics.

Felix's retirement years were busy ones. He had interests in several charitable activities, mostly centred around medicine and children, particularly in the third world. He was very active in his support for the Christian Medical College and Hospital at Vellore, in Tamil Nadu, South India, spreading the word about the hospital and raising money to be sent there. Although at the time it did not seem like a major event, Felix played a small but seminal role in what may well turn out to be his greatest contribution to the alleviation of suffering in the world, by bringing to the attention of the president-elect of World Rotary the appalling incidence of poliomyelitis in Malawi. From this, with massive efforts from Rotary, arose a plan to immunize every child in that country against poliomyelitis; the immunization campaign has now spread to other parts of Africa under the auspices of Rotary, and it may well be that before too long no child in Africa will be subject to that terrible disease.

Central to all Felix's activities was his religious faith. He held fiercely, allowing no room for doubts or uncertainties, to the traditional teachings of the Church, to a literal and concrete acceptance of the New Testament and to a fearful apprehension, which grew as he approached death, of a last judgement before a god who was going to condemn to eternal damnation those who had not been good enough, in both faith and good works. This belief provided perhaps the major motivation in a life filled with good works.

Anthony Arden

(Volume XI, page 25)

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