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Ratten, Victor Richard (1878–1962)

by Gordon Rimmer

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

Victor Richard Ratten (1878-1962), by unknown photographer, 1907-15

Victor Richard Ratten (1878-1962), by unknown photographer, 1907-15

Australian War Memorial, H00127

Victor Richard Ratten (1878-1962), surgeon, was born on 12 December 1878 at Kew, Melbourne, son of George William Ratten, teacher, and his wife Eliza Ann, née Gordon, both Melbourne born. Educated at Port Fairy College, Ratten began dental practice in Brisbane in 1903. He subsequently went to the United States of America, first to Texas then Illinois where in March 1907 he obtained a diploma of medicine from Harvey Medical College. He moved in May to Tasmania where his father, ordained in 1899, was rector of St Paul's Church, Stanley. For seven years Ratten practised at Sheffield. He became a justice of the peace, officer of health to the Kentish Municipality and as captain in the Royal Australian Medical Corps attended troops in the district. On account of his American qualification, the Tasmanian branch of the British Medical Association, formed in 1911, declared him ineligible for membership.

On the outbreak of war, Ratten went to Egypt as a regimental medical officer, Australian Imperial Force, but returned in 1915 unfit for further military service. Next year he acquired J. E. Wolfhagen's Hobart practice and in June 1916 the B.M.A. agreed that its members could deal with him professionally.

When the B.M.A., objecting to the exclusion of private patients from publicly funded hospitals, withdrew honorary staff from the (Royal) Hobart Hospital in May 1917, Ratten was appointed surgeon-superintendent by Premier (Sir) Walter Lee and the hospital board. B.M.A. attempts to secure his deregistration on the grounds that his diploma was fraudulent were frustrated by the government. In October-November 1918 a royal commission headed by Justice N. K. Ewing exonerated Ratten and in July 1920 Chief Justice Sir Herbert Nicholls refused an application from the Medical Council for a commission to take evidence in Illinois and Texas. When the Medical Council considered appealing to the High Court of Australia, the government amended the 1918 Medical Act to invoke the statute of limitations.

Ratten also had popular support. The World declared that 'The public is more interested in Dr Ratten's skill than in Dr Ratten's diploma', and cited successful operations by Ratten on patients whom other doctors had been unable to cure. In 1921 grateful patients presented him with a testimonial.

Ratten's reputation was based largely on his exceptional surgical ability. The number of operations at the hospital increased considerably under his direction, most undertaken by him personally. Insisting on extremely high standards of hygiene, theatre teamwork and modern equipment, he halved the time taken to perform appendectomies, pioneered stomach surgery in Tasmania with gastrectomies and in 1925-26 performed a craniotomy. None of his critics could match his performance.

In the early 1920s Ratten was accused of breaking his contract by taking private patients, but after a commission of inquiry in 1923 the hospital board granted him this right. Honorary staff returned in July 1929 when Ratten agreed to refrain from private practice in return for an increased salary of £2000 a year. In March 1930 the B.M.A. recognized the hospital's full-time clinical staff and the dispute was resolved.

Although the 'People's Doctor', who was appointed C.B.E. in 1925, had captured public opinion, Ratten's administrative shortcomings created difficulties for the hospital board: he opposed reforms that would have weakened his executive authority. In 1932 when the board and honorary staff tried to limit his bureaucratic role, the Opposition Labor leader Albert Ogilvie made political capital from defending Ratten. After Labor came to power in 1934, a new board was appointed, but the premier soon had to prevent it from confining Ratten to surgical work. Then, unexpectedly, in May 1936 an internal inquiry by the board's disapproving chairman, Fr T. J. O'Donnell, resulted in Ratten agreeing to become a part-time surgeon at £1000 a year, a position he retained, along with a practice at St Helen's Private Hospital, until his death.

In private life Ratten collected antiques and was a successful racehorse owner. A long-standing member of the Tasmanian Amateur Jockey and Tasmanian Racing clubs, he won the Hobart Cup with Wingfire in 1947 and the Hobart and Launceston cups with The Artist in 1949.

Ratten died in Hobart on 30 December 1962 and was cremated. He was survived by his wife Blanche Cecily, née Greaves, whom he had married in 1907, and by a son, and left an estate valued for probate at £104,064. His elder son, Wing Commander John Richard Ratten (1908-1945) won the Distinguished Flying Cross and died on active service in World War II.

Select Bibliography

  • W. G. Rimmer, Portrait of a Hospital, the Royal Hobart (Hob, 1981)
  • World (Hobart), 17, 23 Oct 1918
  • Mercury (Hobart), 31 Dec 1962, 1 Mar 1985.

Citation details

Gordon Rimmer, 'Ratten, Victor Richard (1878–1962)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ratten-victor-richard-8160/text14261, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 24 April 2014.

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

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