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Fryberg, Sir Abraham (Abe) (1901–1993)

by John H. Pearn

This article was published online in 2017

Sir Abraham Fryberg (1901–1993), public health physician, army medical officer, and medical administrator, was born on 26 May 1901 at Bendigo, Victoria, third of six children of Henry Fryberg, a Victorian-born pawnbroker, and his Polish-born wife Rose, née Marks. Abe attended (1915–19) Wesley College, Melbourne, forming a proud association with the school, with which he would identify throughout his life. While studying at the University of Melbourne (MB, BS, 1928), he resided at Queen’s College. Gregarious and personable, he played the violin and Australian Rules football, the former with considerable skill, the latter without.

After graduating, Fryberg moved to Queensland and served (1928–30) as a resident medical officer at the Brisbane General Hospital, the Lady Bowen Lying-In Hospital, and the Hospital for Sick Children, where he was appointed registrar in 1930. To raise money for his planned overseas training in paediatrics, he began practising privately at Hughenden three years later. In 1934 he was back in Brisbane. His clinical prospects were greatly compromised in September when, a right-handed person, he lost that hand and the lower part of the forearm in a motor-vehicle accident.

Encouraged by Edward (Ned) Hanlon, Queensland home secretary (later secretary for health and home affairs), Fryberg decided to study for a career in public health and preventive medicine. With characteristic resilience, he gained diplomas in public health and tropical medicine (both 1936) from the University of Sydney, while working as a resident medical officer in psychiatry at the Callan Park Mental Hospital. In 1936 Hanlon appointed him State health officer. He was given the additional duty of medical superintendent of the Elizabeth Kenny Clinic and Training School, which had been opened, under controversial circumstances, in Brisbane in 1935 to treat poliomyelitis using methods derided by most doctors. Fryberg’s tact and his scientific objectivity were significant in the gradual acceptance of many of Kenny’s claims.

Fryberg’s brief period at the clinic (1936–37) identified him as an able medical administrator, capable of firm resolve in the face of conflicting advocacy. At the Lady Bowen hospital he had met Vivian Greensill Barnard, a senior nurse, whom he married on 30 September 1939 at the Presbyterian manse, Clayfield. In 1946 the Queensland government sent him and the orthopaedic surgeon Thomas Stubbs-Brown on an international study tour, one purpose of which was to review Kenny’s methods as practised in the United States of America. On return, to the consternation of many in the Queensland branch of the British Medical Association, the two doctors reported that much of her therapy had merit.

In World War I Fryberg’s elder brother, Louis, had been decorated with the Military Medal for gallantry. On 1 July 1940 Abraham was appointed to the Australian Imperial Force as a captain, Australian Army Medical Corps. Being a specialist in public health, he worked in the crucial military-health spheres of hygiene, preventive medicine, and tropical medicine. He was posted as officer commanding the 2/4th Field Hygiene Section, attached to the 9th Division. Embarking for the Middle East in December, he served (April-October 1941) in the siege of Tobruk, Libya. He demanded the highest standards of sanitation and cleanliness in his sector. At first his responsibilities also included the hygiene care of ten thousand Italian and German prisoners of war. His specialist training and creative flair resulted in the invention of a moveable, fly-proof latrine. Stubbs-Brown, who was also at Tobruk, gave him the appellation `Flyberg of Flibya’; among his old comrades, the nickname stuck for the rest of his life.

From July 1942 Major Fryberg served in Egypt, taking part in the battle of El Alamein (October-November). For his work in the North African campaigns, he was appointed MBE (1942) and mentioned in despatches. He returned to Australia in February 1943 and held senior administrative positions in Brisbane as a lieutenant colonel before transferring to the Reserve of Officers on 3 March 1945. At headquarters, Northern Command, he was part-time assistant director of hygiene (1946–57), and honorary colonel of the Royal Australian Army Medical Corps (1962–67).

In 1945 Fryberg had resumed his post as State health officer. One of his duties was regularly to visit the leprosarium at Peel Island in Moreton Bay. After assuming office as Queensland’s director-general of health and medical services on 15 April 1947, he periodically continued the practice. He developed an intimate knowledge of the special problems of the lazaret and its inmates. His sympathetic attitudes towards the patients led to many improvements until the institution closed in 1959.

Fryberg was one of the most popular and respected doctors to perform the demanding role of Queensland’s director-general of health and medical services. The free-hospital system suffered from continual resource challenges. At a time of great expansion in health services, he played a significant part in several important initiatives, including the establishment (1946) of the Queensland Institute of Medical Research (chairman, 1947–67); the expansion of the (Royal) Flying Doctor Service; the introduction of the Flying Surgeon program (1959); the formation of new divisions within his department, including those of tuberculosis (1949), social work (1960), and geriatrics (1961); and the opening of an alcohol clinic at the Brisbane General Hospital (1958). The first specialists were appointed to provincial hospitals during his tenure. He had a particular affinity for the young people studying medicine under the Queensland government’s fellowship scheme. On graduating they were posted, at his discretion, to provincial and rural hospitals, where they could obtain wide experience.

A foundation fellow of the (Royal) Australian (Australasian) College of Medical Administrators, Fryberg delivered the opening address at its first national meeting in 1968. In that speech he explored the relationship between the medical and public service heads of a government health department. He argued that the senior medical officer must always have direct access to the minister. Moreover, he averred, any difference of opinion between the medical and public service chiefs must be taken to the minister for resolution. He faithfully served the minister of the day, irrespective of party political affiliation, and was noted for giving advice ‘with clarity, sometimes quite forcibly’ (Patrick 1993).

Like many leading doctor-soldiers of his era, Fryberg was closely associated with the St John Ambulance Brigade; he was an influential member (1954–67) of the Queensland district’s executive committee and, as such, prominent in the governance of the Queensland Ambulance Transport Brigade. He was also a supporter and lecturer for the St John Ambulance from 1949. For his service to both the salaried and volunteer ambulance services, he was decorated as a serving brother in the Order of St John of Jerusalem in 1958.

Fryberg was a man of strong personality, who displayed intense loyalty to his peers, staff, and profession. His firm but compassionate use of authority was particularly manifest in his role as president (1947–67) of the Medical Board of Queensland; he sheltered unfortunate victims of alcoholism, especially those who had seen active war service, from people who did not understand the aftermath of combat. He contributed advice to the National Health and Medical Research Council. As a member (1946–68) of the University of Queensland’s senate, he facilitated the foundation in 1960 of the university’s department of child health.

Although engrossed in his work, Fryberg found time for lawn bowls and horse racing. His major recreation was attending the races each week. He was a member (1958–67) of the committee of the Brisbane Amateur Turf Club. In 1968, following concerns about the probity of the trotting industry, the government appointed him inaugural chairman of the Queensland Trotting Board, in which capacity he oversaw the redevelopment of the sport in the State. He was also a Freemason, intermittently attending lodge meetings in Brisbane.

Retiring on 31 December 1967, Fryberg was knighted (1968) and was Sir Abe to many; but he remained simply Abe to his wide circle of friends and professional colleagues. In 1969 the University of Queensland awarded him its second honorary doctorate of medicine. Sir Abraham was proud of his Jewish heritage and identified with liberal Judaism in a quiet and non-demonstrative way. The Jewish community valued his significant contribution and leadership in Queensland society. He died on 13 October 1993 at Windsor, Brisbane, and was cremated. His wife survived him, as did their son, George, a judge of the Supreme Court of Queensland.

Research edited by Darryl Bennet

Select Bibliography

  • Administrator.’ The Quarterly (Royal Australasian College of Medical Administrators) 40, no. 4 (December 2007): 14–21
  • Fryberg, Abraham. Interview by Professors Gordon and Doherty, 6 August 1980. Transcript. Fryer Library, University of Queensland
  • Fryberg, George. Eulogy Delivered at the Funeral of Sir Abraham Fryberg Held at Mount Thompson Crematorium, Mount Gravatt, Brisbane, on 17 October 1993. Unpublished manuscript, 1993. Fryberg family papers. Private collection
  • Patrick, Ross. Eulogy Delivered at the Funeral of Sir Abraham Fryberg Held at Mount Thompson Crematorium, Mount Gravatt, Brisbane, on 17 October 1993. Unpublished manuscript, 1993. Fryberg family papers. Private collection
  • Patrick, Ross, and John Tonge. ‘Sir Abraham Fryberg, MBE, SBStJ, MB BS, DPH, DTM, FRACMA, MD(Hon).’ Medical Journal of Australia 160, no. 1 (7 March 1994): 299, 301
  • Walker, Allan S. Middle East and Far East. Vol. I of Series 5 (Medical) of Australia in the War of 1939-1945. Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1953
  • Wilson, John, and John Pearn. ‘Sister Elizabeth Kenny: Her Nursing and its Influence on Innovation and Leadership.’ In Pioneer Medicine in Australia, edited by John Pearn, 219–240. Brisbane: Amphion Press, 1988

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Citation details

John H. Pearn, 'Fryberg, Sir Abraham (Abe) (1901–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fryberg-sir-abraham-abe-18619/text30255, published online 2017, accessed online 15 December 2019.

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