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Loewenthal, Sir John Isaacs (1914–1979)

by John Carmody

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

John Isaacs Loewenthal (1914-1979), by Norman Bradford Stuckey

John Isaacs Loewenthal (1914-1979), by Norman Bradford Stuckey

Australian War Memorial, 058813

Sir John Isaacs Loewenthal (1914-1979), military surgeon and academic, was born on 22 December 1914 at Bondi, Sydney, seventh and youngest child of native-born parents Abraham Marcus Loewenthal, commercial agent, and his wife Carlotta Minnie, née Cohen. John attended Bondi Public and Sydney Grammar schools; for winning first place in literary subjects in 1931, he was made school captain. Despite showing little interest in science at school, he enrolled in medicine at the University of Sydney (M.B., B.S., 1938); he graduated with second-class honours and the Clayton and F. Norton Manning prizes for clinical medicine and for psychiatry.

A resident medical officer (1938-39) at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Loewenthal was house surgeon to (Sir) Hugh Poate and house physician to (Sir) Charles McDonald. In late 1939 he became senior resident pathologist. Next year he was awarded a fellowship in surgery at the recently established postgraduate school, Prince Henry Hospital (Little Bay); his fellowship lasted a mere eight weeks before he was mobilized as captain, Australian Army Medical Corps, on 3 June 1940. Appointed to the Australian Imperial Force in July, he was posted to the 2nd/9th Field Regiment, I Corps Artillery. He sailed for the Middle East in April 1941 and served in Palestine, Syria and Egypt. In November he was in hospital with malaria-induced jaundice. By January 1942 he had joined the 2nd/1st Casualty Clearing Station; he returned to Australia with the unit in March.

In September Loewenthal was promoted major and immediately embarked for Milne Bay, Papua. Like many other personnel in that region, he contracted malaria and was sent to hospital in Australia in January 1943. Resuming duty next month, he served on the staff of the 116th Australian General Hospital, Charters Towers, Queensland, until leaving for New Guinea in August—one day before he and his 22-year-old fiancée Anne June Stewart, a voluntary aide, intended to be married. They eventually wed on 12 September 1944 at the Scots' Church, West Maitland, New South Wales.

As officer-in-charge of a mobile surgical team in the Markham and Ramu valleys, Loewenthal carried a heavy load of cases. He dealt with casualties on the spot at advanced positions. The main dressing-station under his command at Dumpu routinely held about 250 patients. Despite the risk from enemy fire, he saved the lives of many soldiers who would not have survived being transported even over short distances. Appointed senior surgeon in the 2nd/3rd C.C.S. in November, he took part in the Finschhafen and Huon Peninsula campaigns. After falling ill again in December, he gradually recovered and in April 1944 was transferred to the 115th A.G.H., Heidelberg, Melbourne, with an attachment to the Directorate of Medical Services. He performed general, urological and orthopaedic surgery, and (with Major Robert Officer and Captain J. W. Perry) undertook research on the clinical use of penicillin; for this work he was to be awarded an M.S. (1946) by the University of Melbourne. In October 1945 he was posted to the 113th Military Hospital, Concord, Sydney. His A.I.F. appointment terminated on 11 December.

In mid-1946 Loewenthal went to London on a Nuffield travelling fellowship and as chief assistant to Professor (Sir) James Ross at St Bartholomew's Hospital; later that year he qualified as a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, England. In June 1947 he was appointed lecturer in surgery at the Victoria University of Manchester and deputy-director, surgical professorial unit, at the Manchester Royal Infirmary. Shortly after delivering the Hunterian lecture to the R.C.S. in July 1948, he resigned to return to Sydney where he began private practice. Despite the hostility of some of the surgeons at R.P.A.H., he was appointed honorary assistant-surgeon there in 1949, tutor in surgery (1948) at the University of Sydney and honorary consulting surgeon (1950) at Ryde District Soldiers' Memorial Hospital.

In March 1956 Loewenthal succeeded Sir Harold Dew as Bosch professor of surgery at the university. He began to build up the research and teaching of his almost non-existent department—which resembled 'an empty house . . . likened . . . to the Marie Celeste'—especially in the teaching hospitals beyond the citadel of R.P.A.H. He was really only 'an average sort of teacher'. His students were in awe of him; one of them said, 'He terrified me, like a clipped English colonel'. Loewenthal, however, made significant appointments at Royal North Shore, St Vincent's and Concord hospitals, a number of them new chairs. He also supported the work of the R. Gordon Craig Research Laboratories, and expanded the scope of his department with a lectureship in diagnostic radiology, and a chair in orthopaedic and traumatic surgery (with its associated Raymond Purves Research Laboratories). Although his own interests developed in the fields of vascular and transplantation surgery, he performed a diminishing number of operations and did little research after his academic appointment, but he was a great internationalist who travelled the world presenting the research of his colleagues and subordinates. He was dean (1965-71) of the faculty of medicine, a fellow (1965-66) of the senate and acting-dean (1977).

Loewenthal had his critics, but his charm, his ease in dealing with people of all social levels and his capacities as a committee-man were widely acknowledged. He lacked humbug, and was described as 'a happy, genial (yet forceful) personality' and one of 'the most generous' of men. Various colleagues believed that he was partial to those who supported him; they thought that, while he made good appointments, he was cool and often unhelpful to those who disagreed with him. At the university he tended to do things first and advise people later. Described as a 'wheeler-dealer', he wanted to be 'top cookie, at the centre of things'. He remained a fiercely loyal Sydney university man and was hostile to important figures in the fledgling medical faculty at the University of New South Wales, as well as its vice-chancellor (Sir) Philip Baxter.

Having retained an association with the army, Loewenthal was promoted colonel and appointed consulting surgeon to Army Headquarters, Melbourne, in 1957. During the Vietnam War he was so shocked that repatriated Australian casualties were not being sent to Concord and to major teaching hospitals that he demanded that the minister for the army visit Ingleburn military camp to see the conditions to which the injured men were being subjected.

Elected a fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons in 1955, Loewenthal was a councillor (1961-74) and president (1971-74). He had the reputation of being an outward-looking and reformist president who sought to alter the Melbourne dominance in that college; he was also associated with its journal, the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Surgery. He was a founder (1960) and national president (1975-79) of the National Heart Foundation of Australia, and a member of the Cancer Council of New South Wales, the National Health and Medical Research Council, and several other governing bodies. In addition, he was vice-chairman of the Ludwig Institute of Cancer Research, and an honorary fellow of the American College of Surgeons, the R.C.S., Edinburgh, the Cardiac Society of Australia and New Zealand, and the College of Physicians, Surgeons and Gynaecologists of South Africa. Although he did not initially share the enthusiasm of the younger staff at Sydney Hospital for building a new hospital at Westmead, he changed his position, became an active member of its board and received much of the credit for its development. He also served on the boards of Royal North Shore Hospital and the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children. Appointed C.M.G. in 1975, he was knighted in 1978.

Sir John enjoyed gardening, and belonged to the Australian Club, Legacy Club of Sydney, Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron and Bowral Golf Club. He collapsed on 17 August 1979 at a dinner held in the university's Great Hall in honour of his impending retirement. Survived by his wife, two sons and two daughters, he died of complications of myocardial infarction on 25 August at R.P.A.H. After a funeral at St Luke's Presbyterian Church, Roseville, he was cremated. He had long abandoned any interest in Judaism, but had never been baptized a Christian. His estate was sworn for probate at $408,826.

One of the generation of great Australian surgeons who learned their craft in the demanding conditions of World War II, Loewenthal had been an outstanding surgeon. In the words of Professor Alexander Boyd, he was 'a really good, safe and dependable clinician; a neat and careful operator who [paid] great attention to technique'. Of all the Sydney university men of his generation, he was the closest to being a 'national figure'. He is commemorated by the John Loewenthal research fellowship of the R.A.C.S. and the Sir John Loewenthal award of the National Heart Foundation. The R.A.C.S. holds his portrait by Robert ('Alfie') Hannaford.

Select Bibliography

  • A. S. Walker, The Island Campaigns (Canb, 1957)
  • J. A. Young et al (eds), Centenary Book of the University of Sydney Faculty of Medicine (Syd, 1984)
  • Lives of the Fellows of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, 1974-1982 (Lond, 1988)
  • Lancet, 2 Sept 1979
  • Australian and New Zealand Journal of Surgery, 49, Dec 1979, 50, no 1, Feb 1980
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 3 Nov 1979, p 481
  • Royal Australasian College of Surgeons Archives, Melbourne
  • University of Sydney Archives
  • private information.

Citation details

John Carmody, 'Loewenthal, Sir John Isaacs (1914–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/loewenthal-sir-john-isaacs-10851/text19257, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 26 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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