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Flecker, Hugo (1884–1957)

by John H. Pearn

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Hugo Flecker (1884-1957), medical practitioner, radiotherapist, toxicologist and natural historian, was born on 7 December 1884 at Prahran, Melbourne, third son of Austrian-born George Flecker, publican, and his wife Emma, née Ziffer, from Hungary. The family moved to Adelaide where George managed the South Australian Hotel. Educated at Prince Alfred College, Hugo matriculated fourteenth in his class of fifteen, winning a prize for music despite congenital nerve deafness. He enrolled in medicine at the University of Adelaide in 1904 before transferring to the University of Sydney (M.B., Ch.M., 1908). After graduating, he was variously demonstrator in anatomy at the University of Sydney, honorary anaesthetist at the Royal Hospital for Women, Paddington, and honorary physician at the Mater Misericordiae Hospital, North Sydney.

In 1911 Flecker travelled to Britain where he qualified L.R.C.P. (London) and became a fellow (1912) of the Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh. Back home, he served in the Militia until 20 August 1914 when he was seconded to the Australian Imperial Force as captain, Australian Army Medical Corps. In Egypt and on the Western Front he worked in hospitals and as medical officer of units in the field. His A.I.F. appointment terminated in Australia on 28 April 1917. Remaining on the Reserve of Officers, he was to rise to major and to perform full-time duty at the 116th Australian General Hospital, Charters Towers, Queensland, in 1942-43. At St Philip's Anglican Church, Sydney, on 21 April 1917 he married Thelma Hensler Emma Malvina Arnold. From 1918 he practised at Temora, New South Wales.

In 1921 Flecker shifted to Collins Street, Melbourne, and set up as a radiotherapist, using apparatus said to develop 2500 volts. About 1923, in an attempt to obtain his own supply of radioisotopes, he journeyed by camel to Radium Hill, South Australia, where he searched for radioactive ore with a gold-leaf electroscope. Honorary radiologist (from 1923) at the Austin Hospital for Incurables and (from 1926) at the Homoeopathic (later Prince Henry's) Hospital, he was honorary demonstrator in radiological anatomy (from 1927) at the University of Melbourne. In 1932 Flecker established himself as a radiologist and radiotherapist at Cairns, Queensland. He was one of the few specialists north of Brisbane. Thorough and painstaking, whenever possible he brought his X-ray findings to the referring doctor for discussion. He took his diploma in radiology (Sydney) in 1937 and became a fellow of the Faculty of Radiology (England) in 1939.

Excelling in botany, zoology and toxicology, in 1936 Flecker described the first fatal case of coneshell poisoning in Australia, and continued to report the effects of scorpion and snake venoms on human victims. His practice at Cairns developed into a centre for radiological opinion, and for diagnosis or advice about snakebite, jellyfish stings, scorpion bites and toxic plant ingestions. He published accounts of two cases of survival from Australian taipan bites, but his international fame rested on his research into poisoning by jellyfish. Concerned at the unexplained deaths of swimmers, Flecker identified the cause as the box jellyfish (named Chironex fleckeri in 1956), one of the world's most venomous creatures. In the Medical Journal of Australia (April 1945) he described another jellyfish envenoming which he termed the 'Irukandji Syndrome', later traced to the box jellyfish, Carukia barnesi; his subsequent paper in the same journal (July 1952) became a classic of its type.

Having been active in the Field Naturalists' Club of Victoria from 1921, Flecker developed extracurricular interests in natural history. As foundation president (1932-45) and vice-president (1946-57) of the North Queensland Naturalists' Club, he influenced the documentation and study of the region's flora. The club became a vigorous group, bridging the enthusiasm of amateur collectors and the scrupulousness of taxonomic botanists. More than fifty new species of plants were described during Flecker's presidency; with his encouragement, the club acquired its own herbarium. In 1933-48 he instituted and co-ordinated a census of plants indigenous to the area as a cumulative supplement to the North Queensland Naturalist. At least six new species were named in his honour, including the rare and beautiful orchid of Mount Bellenden Ker, Dendrobium fleckeri, and a new halophytic wattle, Acacia fleckeri. From 1935 until 1937 he wrote a nature column in a Cairns weekly newspaper. His advocacy of conservation and his enlightened approach to ecology—he was concerned with the problems of soil erosion and the spread of noxious, introduced weeds—marked him as a pioneer of the 'Green Movement'.

Known affectionately as 'Fleck' within the medical profession, he was a quiet, meticulous man, courteous to all. He 'enjoyed nothing more than to be surrounded by a group of people while he demonstrated the tentacles of a sea-wasp or the texture of a cedar leaf'. A member of the Queensland branch of the British Medical Association and of the Australian and New Zealand Association of Radiologists, and a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia, he also found time for philately and was a prominent Freemason. Flecker died on 25 June 1957 at Cairns and was buried in the local cemetery; his wife, son and daughter survived him. That year he was posthumously awarded the J. P. Thomson medal of the R.G.S.A. and in 1971 the Flecker Botanic Gardens, Cairns, were named in his honour.

Select Bibliography

  • P. S. Short (ed), History of Systematic Botany in Australasia (Melb, 1990)
  • J. Devanny, Bird of Paradise (Syd, 1945)
  • People (Sydney), 30 Dec 1953
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 30 Nov 1957, p 809
  • Memoirs of the Queensland Museum, 27, no 2, 1989, p 567
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 26 June 1957.

Citation details

John H. Pearn, 'Flecker, Hugo (1884–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/flecker-hugo-10199/text18023, published in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 26 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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