Saturday, August 20, 2011

Dr Max Nicholls, 1927-2011: a good start in life

When people say 'So-And-So had a good start in life,' they usually mean that she or he was born equipped with silver spoon. I can't claim that, though I do remember being very struck by the words of the great South Australian activist, novelist and parliamentary reformer Catherine Helen Spence, on the first page of her autobiography: 'I count myself well-born, for my father and my mother loved each other.'

My sisters and I had that: they loved us too, and we had a country childhood, and there was enough money (though farming is a tough and jumpy-making gig, whatever townies may think).

And as I now know, as of today, I had the good fortune to be delivered by a very distinguished man.

My earliest memory is of gorgeous red and purple rhomboids and lozenges of light, reflected in the polished boards of the hallway, from the stained glass in the front door of the building I was born in. The Curramulka Hospital had been built on land donated by my great-grandmother (I do so love the enlightenment implicit in that sentence); she laid the foundation stone with the silver trowel presented to her by the contractor for the purpose, and then they all went across the road to the Institute for ice cream and a fund-raising fox-trot competition. Oh, it was all go in Curramulka in 1927.

In February of that year, my dad and a man called Edward Maxwell Nicholls were born within eight days of each other, country boys in different country towns. After an eventful education, Max Nicholls arrived in Curramulka with his young wife in 1951, and stayed long enough to escort me into the world two years later at the age of 26 (him not me) before moving on to Mannum later the same year.

Both of my parents always spoke highly and warmly of him. But I knew nothing about his life as a pioneering geneticist in the wake of that early stint as a country GP until today, when my older sister handed me a clipping she'd saved for me: a content-rich obituary by his daughter Christine Nicholls, herself a distinguished scholar with an international reputation. I particularly like these bits.
... he topped the state in mathematics in his Leaving Honours year. Although he wanted to study pure mathematics, his father urged him to follow a vocational pathway so Max accepted a full scholarship at the University of Adelaide where, in 1944, he enrolled in medicine, boarding as a secular student at Wesley Theological College with his brother, Les. At Wesley, Nicholls's relationship with the authorities was uneasy and his stay was punctuated by constant arguments with resident theologues. He also organised a dance - at a time when dancing was frowned upon by hardline Methodists - and came close to being expelled from the college.
After graduating in 1949, he was a resident medical officer at the Royal Adelaide Hospital before joining the Royal Darwin Hospital. As a flying doctor in the service's early days, Nicholls visited remote Aboriginal communities and leprosariums and delivered babies. As a 23-year-old, he briefly found himself in charge of the entire Northern Territory Medical Service when his senior medical officer announced, at a day's notice, that he would be taking annual leave interstate.
In 1953, the family moved to Mannum on the Murray River ... He attended many serious boating and drowning accidents and regularly visited the large Aboriginal settlement near Swan Reach, where he co-operated with the indigenous midwife to deliver babies.

He did postgraduate study in genetics in Mannum -- picture the scene: postgrad studies by correspondence in a South Australian country town while managing a large general practice and a growing family -- and not long afterwards was offered a university job, where his research made a significant contribution to what we know about genetics. Read the whole thing here.


Frances said...

What a good-humored face he has.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

I was talking to a friend about him last night and realised that of course it must have been Max Nicholls who, a week before I was born, had had to do an emergency amputation of both of a fellow 26-year-old local's legs, practically at the hip, after the sort of horrendous freak accident that tends to happen in the country. And of course, since he'd been in the town two years by then, he would have known the patient -- and everyone else involved in the accident (one of whom also needed emergency treatment, and of course there was only Nicholls to do it all) -- quite well. Talk about holding your nerve.

paul walter said...

Congrats Kerryn, a really great Aussie story.
Took me back to Sun on the Stubble at school and my father's heart attack at Port Vincent, about 1970 with us rushing over to Minlaton, in case it was even worse than it looked.