Lives of the fellows

James Eric Clarke

b.23 May 1911 d.2 April 1995
MB BS Melb(1934) MD(1937) MRCP(1939) FRACP(1951) FRCP(1958)

Eric Clarke was a physician at the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne from 1947 to 1971. The son of missionary parents in Kuling, China, he received his schooling in Melbourne at Caulfield Grammar School and Scotch College, earning a senior state scholarship and a residential scholarship to Ormond College. These enabled him to enter the faculty of medicine at the University of Melbourne where he graduated with first class honours in all final subjects.

After a year as resident medical officer at the Royal Melbourne Hospital he spent two years as a senior resident medical officer at the Infectious Diseases Hospital, which no doubt kindled his abiding interest in tuberculosis. In 1939 he went to London to work as a house physician at the Brompton Hospital.

From 1940 to 1946 he served in the Australian Imperial Forces in the Middle East and Southwest Pacific theatres, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel. Following demobilization he was appointed honorary physician to in-patients at the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne. In the same period he continued to serve his former comrades as visiting medical officer to the Repatriations General Hospital, as physician to the Repatriations Department and as a member of the Central Advisory Committee. He also became consultant to the tuberculosis service of the State Department of Public Health, and resumed his Army service in the voluntary reserve as colonel (consultant physician) to headquarters from 1961 to 1970.

During his time at the Alfred Hospital he served as clinical dean from 1961 to 1970, was elected chairman of the senior medical staff and was a member of faculty at both Melbourne and Monash Universities. Outside the hospital he also served the Royal Australasian College of Physicians as a member of the council for many years. He was also a member of the board of censors from 1952 to 1965 and served as vice-president from 1966 to 1968. He contributed much to the Thoracic Society of Australia, becoming president from 1970 to 1972.

In 1955 he stood down from his hospital and consulting practice for a year to assist Richard Lovell, newly arrived from London, in the establishment at the Royal Melbourne Hospital of the newly inaugurated James Stewart chair of medicine at the University of Melbourne.

His life was guided by a deep religious conviction. This was the ultimate source of his devotion to his profession and was expressed in a deep concern for the unfortunate. He was never critical of others’ lapses in acceptable behaviour and had an unfailing generosity of spirit and tolerance of other beliefs.

In everything he did he was exceptionally free from a desire for approval. He failed to collect his numerous service medals, and his many benevolent activities inside and outside the profession were little known before his death. This natural modesty also extended to his sporting ability. The rueful comments of a younger consultant who without forewarning brashly challenged him in tennis would aptly paraphrase the qualities he brought to bear as a physician: "rather silent but very polished; tremendous concentration and dexterity; beautifully executed smashes; angled volleys; and when the occasion arose, bullet-like winning drives."

Eric Clarke was held in the highest respect not only by his peers in medicine but also those in surgical and other disciplines, and by his juniors, both as a specialist in his chosen field of pulmonary diseases, and as a consultant physician, especially in multidisciplinary or obscure problems of diagnosis. His lack of any flamboyance or personal conceit made a striking contrast with his clinical prowess, which brought together a remarkable intellectual capacity, breadth of reading, experience and logical analysis with the rigorous and critical application of clinical skills.

Whether by inclination, or the loss of time in orthodox early graduate development imposed on his generation by service in war, Eric Clarke spent little time in formal research and published very little, though he was always fully informed of the latest scientific and technical advances. He did, however, make numerous original observations of clinical value in his special area which were passed on to those associated with him and in some instances later vindicated independently by the systematic research of others.

Perhaps the most telling appreciation of his exceptional qualities as a physician lay in the fact that his residency and other junior posts were keenly sought by recent graduates, whether their intentions were to train as physicians, as family doctors in remote areas or as specialists in other fields. Those of us who were fortunate enough to share this experience have already seen, through times of rapid technical change in medicine, the durability of the precepts he inculcated in us, and have ensured in turn their passing on. At a time when the pressure to publish has become an imperative, it is salutary to reflect that influences of this kind might be as powerful, as important and as lasting as the published word.

J R E Fraser

(Volume X, page 66)

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