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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Saint, Eric Galton (1918–1989)

by Lenore Layman

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Eric Galton Saint (1918-1989), professor of medicine, was born on 28 November 1918 at Newcastle upon Tyne, England, only child of schoolteacher parents Thomas Gallon Saint and his wife Dora Agnes, née Holmes. Eric attended Royal Grammar School, Newcastle. Winning a scholarship in 1936 to King’s College, University of Durham at Newcastle (B.Sc. Hons, 1939; MB, BS, 1942; MD, 1948), he graduated in science and medicine. These early years in industrial Tyneside impressed upon him the suffering caused by social deprivation and fuelled his lifelong commitment to social amelioration. On 13 May 1941 he married Catherine O’Grady, a registered nurse, at St Dominic’s Catholic Church, Newcastle. He served (1942-46) in the Royal Air Force as a medical officer in England, Scotland, India, Thailand and Burma. In 1946 he returned to the University of Durham, where he completed his doctorate on the occupational disease, miners’ nystagmus, in the new department of industrial health.

Made ‘restless’ by the war and seeking clinical experience, in 1948 Saint became a district medical officer, including working for the Flying Doctor Service of Australia in the north-west of Western Australia. He was based at Port Hedland from February 1948 to March 1951, servicing the Pilbara area, within which was the blue-asbestos mining town of Wittenoom. The first to warn mine management and the State’s health department of the potential occupational health disaster posed by asbestos dust, he predicted ‘the richest and most lethal crop of cases of asbestosis in the world’s literature’. The company did not heed his warnings and the Health Department was unable to influence mines regulation despite efforts to do so. Although he regretted his inability to effect change at Wittenoom, he did make a difference in the wider region. He found the ‘all-round doctoring’ demanded of him in the remote area ‘very exciting’. Aboriginal ill health concerned him and he was keen to eradicate yaws and leprosy. He later recalled that this was ‘the best work I’ve ever done in my life’.

Succeeding brilliantly in the examination for membership of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians in 1950, in February 1951 Saint joined the staff of the clinical research unit of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, Melbourne. His research focused on gastro-enterology, particularly liver disease, and he published papers on chronic alcoholism. In December 1952 he was appointed director of the new clinical research unit at Royal Perth Hospital, where he combined research with clinical training of medical graduates. A leader in the establishment (1956) of the medical school at the University of Western Australia, he was made professor of medicine, one of the school’s nine foundation professors. He aimed to integrate specialties as far as possible and emphasised clinical performance. His own work was devoted to clinical teaching and administration, and to planning a university hospital, a plan which did not eventuate. He also served as president (1958-68) of the Western Australian Council of Social Service.

Saint moved in 1968 to the University of Queensland as inaugural full-time dean of the faculty of medicine. In 1968-78 he was a leader in the major expansion of the National Health and Medical Research Council and in its creation of research fellowships. He was a foundation member of the Committee on Overseas Professional Qualifications, which developed examinations for recognition of overseas-trained medical practitioners. In 1969-70 he was president of the Queensland Council of Social Service. Elected a fellow of the RACP in 1956, he was named a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, London, in 1972.

In 1978 Saint returned to Perth to two part-time clinical positions, one in aged care at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital and the other at the Western Australian Alcohol and Drug Authority. He practised social medicine in his teaching and research and in his clinical work, especially with those experiencing the disabilities of addiction or old age. For him medicine was to be used for social good; he promoted community practice and an engagement with social work. Lecturing frequently to medical and lay audiences, he published academic articles and books directed at a wide readership. He was awarded honorary degrees by the universities of Queensland (LL.D, 1978) and Western Australia (MD, 1981), and the RACP medal (1986). In 1981 he was appointed CMG. He was an expert witness at the trial, Barrow & Heys v. CSR Ltd 1988, in the Supreme Court of Western Australia. His letters and warnings forty years previously about the dangers of asbestos were crucial in Justice Rowland’s judgement against CSR.

Survived by his wife and their daughter and two sons, Saint died of coronary artery disease on 21 February 1989 at Nedlands and was cremated. On Good Doctoring, a collection of Saint’s non-clinical essays and addresses edited by R. B. Lefroy, was published in 1998 to ‘preserve the memory of a person of exceptional talent’.

Select Bibliography

  • N. Stanley (ed), Faculty of Medicine, The University of Western Australia (1982)
  • G. L. McDonald (ed), Roll of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, vol 2 (1994)
  • Trephine, 1978, p 4
  • West Australian, 24 Feb 1989, p 9
  • MJA, 16 Oct 1989, p 481
  • Reflex (Perth), 1989, p 4
  • B. Blackman, taped interview with E. Saint (1986, National Library of Australia)
  • Saint papers (UWA Archives).

Citation details

Lenore Layman, 'Saint, Eric Galton (1918–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 22 October 2020.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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