Lives of the fellows

Harald Dean Breidahl

b.22 December 1924 d.28 January 2018
MB BS Melbourne(1948) MD(1952) MRCP(1956) MRACP(1960) FRACP(1972) FRCP(1976)

Harald Breidahl, known universally as Hal, was a respected diabetologist and endocrinologist in Melbourne who was regarded with affection by colleagues and patients alike. He qualified as a general physician at a time when endocrinology was emerging as a medical specialty.

He was the eldest of three children born in Stawell, Victoria, to Ethel Grace Breidahl née Dean, a classics scholar, and Harold George Daniel Breidahl, a general practitioner at the time. His father had a strong Scandinavian background from his Danish/Norwegian father, Harald Theodore Wilhelm Breidahl, who had emigrated to Melbourne in 1888 to be the industrial chemist and manager of the Joshua Brothers Distillery in Port Melbourne.

Sadly, Ethel died from post-partum haemorrhage after the birth of her third child and the grief-stricken widower moved his young family to Western Australia, where he set up a general practice in West Perth, later specialising in allergies and asthma. The children were schooled in Perth and earned pocket money by caring for the laboratory animals needed for allergy tests. Not surprisingly they all later studied medicine or science at the University of Melbourne, beginning the annual train treks across the Nullarbor Plain for Christmas holidays. Hal completed first-year science at the University of Western Australia before transferring to second-year medicine at the University of Melbourne, initially living in Ormond College, to which he owed many friendships, a lifelong love of the card game solo whist and an abiding loyalty to the college.

Except for three years in overseas positions, he spent most of his medical career at the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne – student, junior and senior resident medical officer, clinical supervisor for Melbourne University students, clinical fellow at the Baker Institute (from 1952 to 1953) and, after his overseas experience, junior and senior medical posts, culminating in physician to the Ewen Downie metabolic unit and a year as chairman of the medical staff at the Alfred. He also set up a private practice in diabetes and endocrinology, which thrived and from which the more complex patients were shared with his colleagues and students at the hospital.

Ewen Downie [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.166] encouraged him to seek overseas experience and in 1953, as a Flack travelling scholar and on a Mayo clinic fellowship, he worked for a year with Randall Sprague and Edward Rynearson in the department of diabetes and metabolism at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, USA. Endocrinology had not been declared a separate entity then, but Hal said he saw more cases within the field in one year at the Mayo Clinic than he saw in 10 years after he returned to Melbourne. There he was also in the company of Edward Calvin Kendall and Philip Showalter Hench, two of the three winners of the1950 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine awarded for their discoveries of the structures and biological effects of the adrenocortical hormones.

This was followed by two formative and exciting years in London: first at Hammersmith Hospital with Russell Fraser [Munk’s Roll, Vol.X, p.149] and then with Robin Daniel Lawrence [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.275] at King’s College Hospital. Apart from clinical duties, he developed an interest in the management of diabetes in pregnancy and was able to follow up research projects including the goitrogenic effects of cobalt chloride and the development of an assay for insulin using a rat diaphragm preparation. During this time, he studied for, and passed, the MRCP. As he was paid more than the stipend he received at the Mayo, and had received a timely bequest from an aunt, he was able to bring his wife, formerly Judith Brown, and young son and daughter to join him. They spent an enjoyable time there in the company of several other families of Australian colleagues, sharing the vicissitudes of living on the proverbial smell of an oily rag.

The family returned to Melbourne in 1956 on board the Port Wellington, with Hal serving as ship’s doctor. He resumed his career at the Alfred Hospital, sharing the honour of being one of the first endocrinologists in Australia with Joseph Bornstein, Bryan Hudson [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web] and Pincus Taft. He was best known for his management of diabetes, both in the diabetic clinic and the endocrine ward at the Alfred, the diabetic foot ward at Caulfield Hospital and in his busy private practice. His interest in diabetic pregnancies was fostered by his appointment as physician to the Royal Women’s Hospital and endocrinologist to the Queen Victoria Hospital. Duncan Topliss, the present director of the department of endocrinology and diabetes at the Alfred Hospital and Hal’s registrar in the 1970s, described him as ‘a true clinician with great clinical understanding and empathy for his patients.’

Hal was also noted for his interest in education. He was active in medical tutorials at Ormond College and, within the Alfred Hospital, was generous with his time for teaching students, including several generations of aspiring young physicians and student nurses, many of whom remember him as a great teacher and clinician. The Alfred had a fine nursing school and while in London Hal was always pleased to see nurses wearing the Alfred Hospital badge.

In addition to his active clinical life, he was a founding member of the Endocrine Society of Australia (in 1958), becoming a life member in 1982. Although he was an experienced and capable endocrinologist, his major interest was in the care of patients with diabetes. He was concerned that, as endocrinology was rapidly advancing, diabetes was losing its forum for the presentation of clinical and scientific research and he, together with John Turtle from Sydney, formed the Australian Diabetes Society. He was the founding president (from 1974 to 1976) and later was made a life fellow. He was also partly responsible for the formation of Diabetes Victoria in early 1953 before he left for the Mayo Clinic. When other states formed similar associations, they joined to become Diabetes Australia, which represents diabetic patients and those interested in their welfare – especially medical specialists and other health professionals. Diabetes Australia then became part of the International Diabetes Federation (IDF) and, from 1964 to 1976, Hal attended their triennial international congresses as Australia’s medical delegate. At the 1976 meeting in New Delhi he was appointed a vice president of the IDF, a position he held for six years. Among other activities, he was chairman of the Australian Standards Committee for the standardisation of insulin syringes.

Sadly, his wife Judy died of cancer at the early age of 52. Hal later married Meg Bailie, at that time director of biochemistry at the Alfred Hospital, thus ensuring prompt glucose results for his patients! Hal’s major interests outside medicine, many shared with Meg, included his gardens, music (especially Gilbert and Sullivan operas, for which he knew all the words but thankfully refrained from singing them), travels in Australia and abroad, and Turkmen and other oriental rugs. In retirement, he expanded his fishing trips to include northern Australian waters, caught his only marlin, embraced the game of golf, expressed his love of Mornington Peninsula wines while working in a friend’s cellar, and maintained his passion for regularly swimming in the sea, developed as a boy surfing Scarborough Beach in Western Australia. He died of heart failure at 93, after an energetic and productive life.

M J Breidahl

[Diabetes Australia Vale Dr Harald Breidhal – accessed 12 June 2018; ESA: Endocrine Society of Australia Honorary Life Membership – accessed 12 June 2018]

(Volume XII, page web)

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