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Honner, Richard St John (Dick) (1897–1962)

by Leila Barlow

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

Richard St John Honner (1897-1962), surgeon and athlete, was born on 30 November 1897 at Maitland, South Australia, eldest of four children of William Honner, a farmer from England, and his wife Ellen Mary Dominic, née Moloney, a schoolteacher. His father later bought a property at Junee, New South Wales, where Dick's love for the land and horses was bred in him. Inheriting a talent for music from his mother, he developed a lifelong love for the violin, and gained a medal (1913) and a licentiate (1916) from the London College of Music. After primary schooling at Junee, he attended St Joseph's College, Hunters Hill, Sydney, and entered St John's College, University of Sydney (M.B., Ch.M., 1922). He was resident medical officer (1922-23) at St Vincent's Hospital under Sir Alexander MacCormick and (Sir) John McKelvey.

With characteristic enthusiasm, Honner spent vacations at Junee where he trained as a hurdler and long-jumper on makeshift tracks and pits. He became the Australian and New South Wales long-jump champion. Chosen to compete in the 1924 Olympic Games, he kept a detailed diary of his journey to France and his time there. On reaching Paris, he wrote: 'We are dismayed and heart-broken . . . [with] no ground to train on . . . what a frightful handicap we are up against!' He did his 'worst jump for the last 7 years' and was unplaced.

Embarking with zest upon postgraduate studies at the Middlesex (1924), Poplar and London (1925-27) hospitals, Honner qualified L.R.C.P., London, and M.R.C.S., England, in 1925. He devoted one day a week to athletic training. On 16 June 1926 at the Crystal Palace he broke the 37-year-old British record with a jump of 24 ft 4½ ins (7.43 m). Back in Sydney, on 14 April 1928 at St John's College chapel he married Kathleen Mary Dooley. That year he was appointed honorary gynaecologist at Lewisham Hospital, and in 1931 surgeon and honorary obstetrician at St Margaret's Hospital. While abroad in 1936, he was elected F.R.C.S., Edinburgh, and next year became a fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons.

On 19 February 1942 Honner was mobilized as a major in the Australian Army Medical Corps. He served in military hospitals, principally at Goulburn and at Alice Springs, Northern Territory. From 1946 he rapidly built up one of the largest obstetric practices in Sydney. His deeply held Catholicism was closely linked with his devotion to medicine: fearless and forthright in the expression of his convictions, he was widely respected for his integrity. Honner's membership of the Medical Guild of St Luke provided him with a forum where he wielded considerable influence. In a series of letters in the guild's Transactions he rebutted the views of Dr John Duhig of Brisbane—a free-thinker and fierce critic of Catholic beliefs—with spirit and clarity, disregarding his opponent's disparaging references to himself.

Honner's friends recognized his dynamism and vitality, as well as his mercurial temperament. Although he indulged in humorous sallies and witty repartee, he balanced this side of his nature by a quiet reserve, sensitivity and compassion. His quickness of speech and movement gave rise to his nickname, 'the Tin Hare'. He lived at Woollahra, belonged to the Australian Jockey Club and set up the Marian Pastoral Co. Pty Ltd. While addressing his colleagues at a dinner in the Australia Hotel, he collapsed and died of myocardial infarction on 10 November 1962. Survived by his wife, son and three daughters, he was buried in Waverley cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • St Joseph's College Annual, 1915, p 81, 1916, p 26
  • Cerise and Blue, 1924, p 27
  • Transactions of the Medical Guild of St Luke, no 14, 1963, p 7
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 27 Apr 1963, p 634
  • Sun (Sydney), 8, 12 May, 2 June 1924
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16 Aug 1924, 28 June 1926
  • Times (London), 17, 28 June 1926
  • Catholic Weekly, 20 Dec 1962
  • R. Honner file, series 71, item 665 (Archives of Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, Sydney)
  • R. Honner correspondence (privately held).

Citation details

Leila Barlow, 'Honner, Richard St John (Dick) (1897–1962)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/honner-richard-st-john-dick-10534/text18701, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 28 November 2014.

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

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