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Poate, Sir Hugh Raymond Guy (1884–1961)

by Ian Howie-Willis

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Sir Hugh Raymond Guy Poate (1884-1961), surgeon, was born on 16 January 1884 at Summer Hill, Sydney, eldest surviving of five children of Frederick Poate, surveyor, and his wife Julia Frederica Elvina, née Rooke. He attended Sydney Grammar School for six years and in 1902 enrolled in arts at the University of Sydney; next year he switched to medicine (M.B., Ch.M., 1907). He won the Haswell prize for practical biology and the John Harris scholarship, spent his vacations in the physiology laboratory investigating the pituitary and thyroid glands, was secretary and president (1907) of the university medical society, edited its journal, played baseball and became a sergeant in the Sydney University Scouts.

A resident in Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Poate continued his research on ductless glands and conducted routine pathology work. In 1908 he went to London and next year became the first Sydney graduate admitted to a fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons, England. Returning to Sydney late in 1909, he set up practice in Macquarie Street and was appointed demonstrator (and later examiner) in anatomy at the university. On 14 September 1910 he married Beatrice Ellis at St Andrew's Cathedral; she died in childbirth next year. In 1911-38 Poate was honorary surgeon at R.P.A.H.

Commissioned in the Australian Army Medical Corps in 1909, in August 1914 he enlisted as a captain in the Australian Imperial Force, helped to recruit the 1st Field Ambulance and was promoted major in February 1915. He was in charge of transports ferrying wounded back from Gallipoli to Egypt. During these voyages he spent much of his time operating, earning the nickname 'Lightning' for his swift and deft surgical technique. At the British Consulate, Cairo, he married Aida Diacono (d.1952), daughter of Italian parents, on 30 March 1916. He moved with No.3 Australian General Hospital to England in September, then to Abbeville, France, in March 1917 and during the heavy fighting at Ypres often operated for sixteen hours a day. He had been promoted lieutenant-colonel in February. Eventually his health broke down, and he was repatriated late in 1917.

Back in Sydney, Poate conducted a busy private practice, operating mainly at R.P.A.H. He regularly undertook country tours in a chartered Tiger Moth aircraft. In 1929 he was appointed consulting surgeon to the Royal Australian Air Force, and was group captain during World War II. In 1938 he became lecturer in postgraduate surgery and director of the surgical unit at Prince Henry Hospital.

As his practice flourished, Poate consolidated his reputation and published fifty-seven articles in medical journals between 1915 and 1949. He continued to pioneer new methods and therapies. Although skilled in orthopaedic, cranial and thoracic surgery, he became an international authority on thyroid surgery and was the first Australian to introduce medical treatment for hyperthyroidism, using 'thio' drugs.

Poate was a foundation fellow, councillor and president (1945-48) of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, president of the Medical Board of New South Wales and foundation chairman of the Old People's Welfare Council of New South Wales (1957-61). He was also a philatelist and president of the Orchid and the (Royal) Horticultural societies of New South Wales. He belonged to the Australian and Royal Sydney Golf clubs.

Deeply interested in the Order of St John of Jerusalem, Poate joined the St John Ambulance Brigade in 1913 and was State commissioner in 1929-42; the brigade flourished under his direction. He influenced all areas of the work of the order and its relations with its English headquarters and the Crown; in 1935 he was appointed knight of grace. When a commandery was formed to unite the order's State branches in 1942, Poate became its administrative head. In 1947, when the commandery was granted priory status as an independent branch of the English order, Poate became its chief executive as sub-prior, then chancellor. Under his direction, St John rose to national prominence as a voluntary agency specializing in health care and training. In 1955 he became the first Australian to be promoted bailiff grand cross.

Appointed M.V.O. in 1947 and knighted in 1952, Poate was a man of great integrity, committed to the highest standards in all he attempted. His bustling energy and insistence on prompt, efficient service might have led some to think him brusque, but most colleagues admired his kindliness and hospitableness, his encouragement of junior associates, concern for his patients, courtesy, lively sense of humour and personal charm.

Survived by a daughter of his first marriage and three sons and two daughters of his second, Poate died on 26 January 1961 at his Bellevue Hill home and was cremated with Anglican rites. His portrait by Joshua Smith hangs in the headquarters of St John Ambulance Australia, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • The Life and Work of Hugh R. G. Poate (priv print, Syd, 1949)
  • I. Howie-Willis, A Century for Australia (Canb, 1983)
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 1 July 1961
  • private information.

Citation details

Ian Howie-Willis, 'Poate, Sir Hugh Raymond Guy (1884–1961)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/poate-sir-hugh-raymond-guy-8068/text14079, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 28 May 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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