Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Forster, Frank Menzies (1923–1995)

by Diane Tibbits

This article was published online in 2019

Frank Menzies Cameron Forster (1923–1995), obstetrician, gynaecologist, and medical historian, was born on 21 September 1923 at Double Bay, Sydney, second of three children of Victorian-born parents Cameron McDougall Forster, medical student and later practitioner, and his wife Jean Catherine, née Officer, psychology graduate and later a pioneering remedial teacher. Frank was educated at Ashfield Grammar School for Boys, Sydney. Following his parents’ separation he lived with his mother in Victoria and attended Princes Hill State School, Carlton, before gaining a scholarship to Melbourne Church of England Grammar School. In 1940 he entered medicine at the University of Melbourne (MB, BS, 1948). His degrees were interrupted by the discovery of a tumour on his spine. The surgery, while successful, left him with spinal weakness and intermittent pain. Encouraged to return to study by Professor (Sir) Roy (Pansy) Wright, dean of medicine, he graduated with honours in surgery as well as obstetrics and gynaecology.

In 1948 Forster began his surgical training as a resident medical officer, then registrar, at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. He was a resident at the (Royal) Women’s Hospital (RWH) by 1951. On 1 July 1952 he married Prudence Isobel Swan Edgar, a nurse, at the Melbourne Church of England Grammar School chapel. The next year the couple travelled to London where Frank worked at the Hospital for Women, Soho Square, and gained membership (later fellowship) of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.

Clinical work drew Forster back to the RWH. From 1954 to 1958 he was a gynaecological assistant in the professorial unit. In 1955, while (Sir) Lance Townsend, professor of obstetrics and gynaecology, was on sabbatical, Forster taught resident medical staff and medical students. His bedside teaching and lively lectures, emphasising the meticulous care of pregnant women, were highly regarded. By the late 1950s he had established a private practice in Collins Street. He continued at the hospital as an honorary associate surgeon and then honorary obstetrical surgeon to outpatients until 1965 when the number of private patients he attracted caused him to step down.

Forster became a specialist in dealing with difficult pregnancies. To overcome cervical incompetence and possible loss of the unborn child, he refined a procedure to insert a cervical suture, designing an implement that became known as ‘the Frank Forster needle.’ In the 1960s he was regarded as an expert on liver disease in pregnancy. From 1956 to 1984 he was a visiting specialist, and later honorary consultant at Fairfield Hospital overseeing complications during pregnancy and childbirth from diseases such as polio and hepatitis. He also provided obstetric and gynaecological services at Her Majesty’s Female Prison, Fairlea.

Developing a passion for collecting medical books, ephemera, and instruments, Forster had joined the Victorian branch of the Section of Medical History (later the Medical History Society) and served as its president (1966–68 and 1980–82) and treasurer (1979–80). In the late 1960s, with the paediatrician Glynn White, he purchased a building in East Melbourne for consulting rooms that included space for his expanding library. At the RWH he helped to establish the Tracy (Maund) Memorial Lecture and delivered the inaugural presentation in 1964. During his second term as president of the Medical History branch, he initiated and edited the Medical History Australia newsletter. He also participated in the Medico-Legal Society of Victoria and the State branch of the Book Collectors’ Society of Australia (president, 1983–85).

A prolific author, Forster published articles, booklets, and catalogues on aspects of Australian medical history. In 1978 and 1979 he held the Norman Haire fellowship at the University of Sydney. He catalogued the Haire archives and began to research Haire’s life as an Australian gynaecologist who was outspoken on issues such as birth control, sex education, and sexual reform. A fellow (1978) of the Royal Australian College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RACOG), he co-authored its history, Super Ardua, in 1981 and helped to establish the Glyn White research fellowship.

Fellow collector and medical colleague Bryan Gandevia recalled that Forster had ‘a wicked chuckle and a notable capacity to recount anecdotes of people past and present’ (Gandevia and Attwood 1995, 2). In 1987 Forster donated his collection of books, instruments, and other items relating to women’s health to the RACOG. Three years later he was awarded the president’s medal. Survived by his wife, their daughter, and their three sons, he died on 18 March 1995 at East Melbourne and was cremated. That year the RACOG library was renamed in his memory.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Forster, Frank M. C. ‘30 Years On. Medical History Society, 1953–83. Australian Medical Association (Victorian Branch), with Accounts of Other Activities Promoting Medical History in Australia.’ In Occasional Papers on Medical History Australia, edited by Harold Attwood, Frank Forster, and Bryan Gandevia, 157–99, Parkville, Vic.: Medical History Society, A.M.A. (Victoria branch), and Medical History Unit, University of Melbourne, 1984
  • Gandevia, Bryan, and Harold Attwood. ‘Frank Menzies Cameron Forster, 1923–1995. A Tribute.’ Newsletter of the Australian Society of the History of Medicine, August 1995, 1–3
  • McDonald, Ian A., Ian Cope, and Frank M. C. Forster. Super Ardua: The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in Australia, 1929–1979. Melbourne: Australian Council RCOG, 1981
  • Muir, Claire. The Medical History Society of Victoria, 1953–2006. Melbourne: The Medical History Society of Victoria Inc., 2007
  • Royal Women’s Hospital. ‘Forster, Frank Menzies Cameron (1923-1995).’ Created 15 November 2006. Accessed 17 August 2012. http://www.thewomenshistory.org.au/biogs/e000089b.htm. Copy held on ADB file
  • Winspear, Rosalind. ‘A College Benefactor: Frank Forster—Obstetrician, Gynaecologist, Medical Historian and Bibliophile.’ Australian and New Zealand Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology 44 (2004): 3–5

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Citation details

Diane Tibbits, 'Forster, Frank Menzies (1923–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/forster-frank-menzies-23427/text32507, published online 2019, accessed online 20 May 2019.

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