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Sir Harold Robert Dew (1891–1962)

by John Carmody

This article was published:

Sir Harold Robert Dew (1891-1962), professor of surgery, was born on 14 April 1891 at Reservoir, Melbourne, eldest child of Victorian-born parents Joseph Dew, schoolteacher, and his wife Alice Lucy, née Steed. Educated at the Melbourne Continuation School and at Scotch College, in 1909 Harold entered Ormond College, University of Melbourne (M.B., B.S., 1914). After a year as resident medical officer at (Royal) Melbourne Hospital, he sailed for England where he was commissioned temporary lieutenant in the Royal Army Medical Corps on 14 April 1915. He served in France with the 57th Field Ambulance and in Egypt with the 146th. From January 1918 Captain Dew was officer commanding the cholera laboratory at the 3rd Egyptian Stationary Hospital, Kantara; there he also performed general and clinical pathology, and surgery. He assembled a fine collection of pathological specimens of endemic Egyptian diseases, particularly those that illustrated dysentery and bilharziasis. The French government had awarded him the médaille d'honneur des épidémies in August 1917.

His appointment having terminated in April 1919, Dew went to London for postgraduate study and hospital experience, and in 1920 was admitted a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, England. Back in Melbourne, he became resident tutor in surgery and anatomy at Ormond College. As an honorary associate (first-assistant 1922-25) at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, he collaborated with (Sir) Neil Fairley on such topics as dysentery, malaria and schistosomiasis, and—in what was to become his outstanding work—hydatid disease and testicular tumours. Concurrent with his research, Dew's clinical work also developed, with an appointment in 1922 as a clinical-assistant and in 1923 honorary surgeon to out-patients at Melbourne Hospital. On 27 February 1925 at Christ Church, South Yarra, he married with Anglican rites Doreen Lorna Beatrice Lawrance.

In 1924 Dew had won the R.C.S.'s Jacksonian prize for his essay on malignant disease of the testicle; next year he expanded the essay into a book. He shared the university's David Syme research prize in 1927 for work which was to be published in 1928 as Hydatid Disease and which rapidly became an international classic. Secretary (from 1923) of the Surgical Association of Melbourne, he was a fellow (1928) of the (Royal) Australasian College of Surgeons.

Appointed in February 1930 to the new Bosch chair of surgery at the University of Sydney, Dew received glowing tributes to his intellectual, professional and personal qualities from his referees, among them Professors Sir Charles Martin and William Osborne. Dew spent seven months abroad and was Hunterian professor of the R.C.S. On taking up his duties in Sydney in September, he collaborated with Charles Lambie, Bosch professor of medicine, in reorganizing the clinical curriculum. The pair, who have been characterized as 'like chalk and cheese, Lambie a fussy little man and Dew a plain man with no airs and graces', complemented each other admirably. Dew also oversaw the construction of the new medical school. Determined that the university should derive the fullest benefit from a substantial grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, he attempted to have equipment for the building exempted from sales tax, a cause which he furthered through protracted correspondence with his old Melbourne friend (Sir) John Latham and other Federal politicians.

While the physician Robert Scot Skirving was not alone in scorning his prosaic lecturing style, Dew was a popular teacher with students. In his very didactic way 'he made the subject as understandable as possible by placing great emphasis on the practical'. He was an honorary at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital where, despite a certain 'crustiness', he was liked by his patients. His major clinical achievement, apart from stressing surgical pathology as the basis for surgical practice, was that he began neurosurgery in Sydney, after observing in 1930 the work of Harvey Cushing at Boston, United States of America. Previously only very limited cranial exploration had been undertaken by general surgeons. By backing his gifted protégés Rex Money and Gilbert Phillips, Dew ushered in a new era. One colleague described him as coming like 'a breath of fresh air into the static, insular and self-satisfied medical world of Sydney'. Dew was, himself, a poor operative surgeon which limited his effectiveness, especially in postgraduate education, because he was never accepted by (Sir) Herbert Schlink, the doyen of R.P.A.H. Although some colleagues considered that Dew's move into administration seriously limited his professional potential, accounts of his periods as dean of medicine and as a fellow (1936-38 and 1940-52) of the senate (1936-38 and 1940-52) have emphasized his fairness and 'good-heartedness', as well as his battles with wartime difficulties and large enrolments after 1945.

Dew did no research himself once he had arrived in Sydney, but he introduced the B.Sc. (Med.) degree in 1949 and promoted a postwar flowering of research by providing facilities and encouragement. In 1937-56 he had represented the R.A.C.S. on the National Health and Medical Research Council; he was a foundation member of the N.H. & M.R.C.'s executive-committee and foundation chairman (1946-56) of its medical research advisory committee. He emphasized 'the importance of initiating a national scheme . . . to encourage young medical graduates to take up medical research as a career' and urged the Commonwealth government to provide 'a definite annual sum' to ensure continuity.

A council-member (1940-54) of the R.A.C.S., Dew was vice-president (from 1948) and president (1953-54). During World War II he had been a member of the Royal Australian Air Force Flying Personnel Research Committee. Despite numerous commitments, he sat on the editorial committees of the British and Australasian journals of surgery, the New South Wales Rhodes scholarship committee and the Nuffield Foundation advisory committee for Australia. In 1953 he was Sims Commonwealth travelling professor for the R.C.S. and again Hunterian professor in London. He was awarded an honorary Sc.D. by the University of Cambridge (1953) and knighted in 1955.

With an abiding love of the Snowy mountains, for most of his life Dew belonged to the Waterfall Farm Fly-Fishers' Club which held land on the Geehi River; he was its secretary for more than twenty years. Jack Lang had denounced the group as a 'conservative cabal'. Its members included Dew's close friends Latham, (Sir) Thomas Bavin and (Sir) John Harvey, but there is no evidence of overt political activity on Dew's part. He also belonged to the Australian Club.

Lady Dew was active in the affairs of the Sydney University Settlement and the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children where a lecture theatre is named after her. With her husband, who was a bon viveur, she was known in Sydney for her hospitality. Following his retirement in 1956, they lived at Wheelers Hill, on the outskirts of Melbourne. Sir Harold never really recovered from the destruction by a fire of his uninsured home, paintings and library only a year after they had moved to Victoria. Survived by his wife and two daughters, he died on 17 November 1962 at Wheelers Hill and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • G. H. Hall and A. Cousins (eds), Book of Remembrance of the University of Sydney in the War 1914-1918 (Syd, 1939)
  • J. A. Young et al (eds), Centenary Book of the University of Sydney Faculty of Medicine (Syd, 1984)
  • A. Macintosh (ed), Memoirs of Dr Robert Scot Skirving 1859-1956 (Syd, 1988)
  • Lancet, 8 Dec 1962
  • British Medical Journal, 1 Dec 1962
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 15 Apr 1924, 5 Feb 1930, 10, 11 Oct 1952, 15 July 1953, 9 June 1955
  • Smith's Weekly (Sydney), 22 Feb 1930
  • Herald (Melbourne), 17 June 1958
  • Sir John Latham papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Royal Australasian College of Surgeons Archives (Melbourne)
  • University of Sydney Archives
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Carmody, 'Dew, Sir Harold Robert (1891–1962)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 13 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

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