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Fitts, Sir Clive Hamilton (1900–1984)

by J. R. Poynter

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Sir Clive Hamilton Fitts (1900-1984), physician, was born on 14 July 1900 at Carlton, Melbourne, third of five children of Victorian-born parents Hamilton Fitts, wool merchant, and his wife Catherine, née Pardey. Clive followed his two elder brothers to Scotch College, where he spent eight `carefree’ years. Strong-willed, he so resented a father-enforced transfer to Melbourne Church of England Grammar School that he refused to play in school teams and spent afternoons browsing in Cole’s [q.v.3] Book Arcade, his literary interests quickened in classes shared with (Sir) Keith Hancock [q.v.] and `Sandy’ Boyce Gibson. On his father’s instructions, he enrolled in medicine at the University of Melbourne (MB, 1926; MD, 1929; BS, 1931), entering Trinity College in 1919. He played football for the university and tennis for Victoria, but his academic progress was fitful; he passed final year only at his third attempt: `perhaps I was the first to demonstrate that the course needed lengthening’, he remarked later.

Despite residencies at the Alfred and Children’s hospitals, Fitts failed to gain further appointments before the Depression worsened his prospects. He was employed as a medical officer with the Commonwealth Department of Health, working successively at the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine at the University of Sydney (DTM, 1930), the Com­monwealth Serum Laboratories, Melbourne, and the Quarantine Service, where he so enjoyed the hazards of boarding ships that in 1931 he became surgeon in a tramp-steamer, bound eventually for Europe. In London he secured appointment as house physician, surgeon and assistant-superintendent at the Brompton Hospital for Consumption and Diseases of the Chest, and, after three months as acting-superintendent of the British Sanatorium in Switzerland, became medical superintendent (1933-34) at the National Heart Hospital, London, with (Sir) John Parkinson as mentor and later friend. In 1933 he was made a member of the Royal College of Physicians (fellow 1938). After returning to Switzerland to climb the Matterhorn, Fitts sailed for Australia via the United States of America with empty pockets but rich in experience.

In Melbourne Fitts persuaded the warden of Trinity College to create the post of resident medical tutor. He gained the appointments then essential for the higher reaches of his profession, as honorary physician to out-patients at St Vincent’s Hospital (1935-40), to the thoracic department at the Austin Hospital (1939-66) and to out-patients (1939-47) and in-patients (1947-60) at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. At Trinity College Chapel on 14 October 1939 he married Yrsa Elizabeth Osborne, also a medical practitioner and daughter of William Alexander and Ethel Elizabeth Osborne. They settled at Hawthorn, with a seaside house at Shoreham, and entertained a remarkable range of friends.

Fitts had served with the Australian Army Medical Corps, Militia, from 1927 (major 1934), but was prevented by a stomach ulcer from joining the Australian Imperial Force. In June-November 1941 he carried out full-time service as staff officer to Major General Rupert Downes [q.v.8], accompanying him on his tour of inspection of medical facilities in North Africa, the Middle East and the Far East. A gifted clinician in the old, holistic tradition of Sir William Osler, whose Principles and Practice of Medicine he relished as `a great work of literature’ and read ten times, Fitts nevertheless championed cardiology as a separate discipline, guiding the creation of the Royal Melbourne’s cardiac department. He also welcomed the establishment of clinical chairs in the faculty of medicine, although it ended the dominance of hospital honoraries over clinical training. In 1948 he held a Carnegie travelling fellowship in the USA, and in 1959 undertook a Colombo Plan assignment comparing medical conditions in Malaya, Thailand and Burma. He was also active in many medical organisations, including the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (foundation fellow 1938; councillor 1952-61; vice-president 1956-58) and the National Heart Foundation of Australia, which he helped to establish in 1961. On his retirement (1960) from the RMH he became an honorary consulting physician. He was knighted in 1963.

An eloquent speaker, Fitts gave many public addresses—including the Sir Richard Stawell, the (Joseph) Bancroft and the (Lord) Lister orations, and the Tudor Edwards memorial lecture at the Royal College of Physicians, London)—always arguing strongly for medicine as a humane discipline as well as a science. In manner courteous, but quizzical and blunt, he was a formidable witness when called in court actions, ready to correct foolishness, even in judges. He conducted his large private practice from rooms in leafy Parliament Place, a pleasant walk from the Melbourne Club, of which he was an assiduous member (president 1965), as he was of the Savage Club and the less formal Beefsteak and Wallaby clubs and the Boobooks. He was also a mem­ber of the councils of the University of Melbourne (1951-53, 1955-71), MCEGS (1960-69) and St Hilda’s College, and became a fellow of Trinity College in 1980. Politically inactive (despite his reputation as a `society doctor’ with Sir Robert Menzies among his patients), Fitts was a swinging voter, quietly but firmly opposed to the Vietnam War.

Fitts was also a passionate book lover, active on the board of Melbourne University Press and with the Friends of the Baillieu Library. His encounter in 1946 with a young patient, Margaret Stones, prompted him to recruit his friends (Sir) Russell Grimwade and (Sir) Daryl Lindsay to help launch her career as a botanical artist. In turn, Lindsay recruited him as founding president (1947) of the National Gallery Society, and in 1955 he joined the Felton Bequests Committee (chairman 1965-75), the functions of which he reformed by introducing selective grants for medical research and projects for social betterment, while defending its reliance on overseas advisers for art purchases for the gallery.

Always a keen tennis player, Fitts also shared with his wife a passion for fly-fishing: the sport took them as far afield as Norway. In 1978 he retired as a consultant physician. His last years were saddened by the illness of one of his daughters and the death in 1980 of his son David, a talented artist. Survived by his wife, their three daughters, and their other son, Sir Clive Fitts died on 7 February 1984 in East Melbourne and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • J. C. Wiseman and R. J. Mulhearn (eds), Roll of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, vol 2, 1976-90 (1994)
  • A. Gregory, The Ever Open Door (1998)
  • J. Poynter, Mr Felton’s Bequests (2003)
  • Australian, 11-12 Feb 1984, p 5
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 26 May 1984, p 674
  • Fitts papers (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

J. R. Poynter, 'Fitts, Sir Clive Hamilton (1900–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fitts-sir-clive-hamilton-12496/text22483, published in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 25 October 2014.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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