Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Alfred Edmund Finckh (1866–1961)

by Carol Cantrell

This article was published:

Alfred Edmund Finckh (1866-1961), pathologist and maître d'armes, was born on 31 May 1866 in Sydney, second of four children of Hermann Finckh, a watchmaker and jeweller from Stuttgart, Württemberg, and his Swiss-born wife Sophia, née Moesch. The family moved from Surry Hills to North Sydney. From 1873 Alfred was educated at Reutlingen and remained in Germany to learn watchmaking. In 1885 he returned to New South Wales and worked as a jackeroo at Coonamble before studying arts and medicine on and off at the University of Sydney (M.B., 1905). While employed as a part-time assistant at the Technological Museum, he published several papers.

In 1898 Finckh was asked by Professor (Sir) Edgeworth David to lead the third Royal Society expedition to Funafuti, Ellice Islands (Tuvalu). Completing the coral-reef boring proved exceptionally demanding, but, after four months, a final depth of 1114½ ft (340 m) was reached. With the government hydrographer Gerald Halligan, Finckh mapped parts of the reef, and dredged lagoon and reef samples. He detailed the distribution of reef organisms, the formation of reef rock and the growth rates of algae and corals. His paper was included in the Royal Society's monograph on the expedition's results. Awarded a research grant by the Royal Society, in 1901 he investigated the Great Barrier Reef from Cooktown to Lizard Island, using a whaleboat and Aboriginal crew.

Having served as a resident medical officer at Sydney Hospital in 1905, Finckh studied pathology in Berlin, at Hamburg and at St Mary's Hospital, London. Back home in 1908, he was honorary pathologist (1912-18) at Sydney Hospital, and also at the Women's Hospital and the Anti-Tuberculosis Dispensary in 1914. His main energies during this period, however, were directed towards establishing the Sydney Clinical Research Laboratories at 227 Macquarie Street—one of the first private pathology practices in Australia. He was to continue in practice until the age of 90. Imbued with a zealousness that demanded the best diagnosis and treatment of patients, Finckh stressed basic aspects of medicinal and laboratory practice in regular letters to medical journals. He introduced the Wassermann test for syphilis to Sydney amid scepticism and outright mistrust. At St James's Anglican Church, Hyde Park, on 14 July 1913 he had married Melissa Dorcas Slade. In 1917 he designed and built their home at Mosman where he entertained the Naturalists' Society of New South Wales and specialized in growing native Australian plants.

To acquire and maintain physical, mental and emotional fitness, Finckh perfected and rigorously practised fencing as a discipline. He painstakingly taught 'Academic Fencing' in rooms at the rear of the Australia Hotel and described his method in three books. Founder of the Sydney Fencing Club and the Australian Amateur Fencing Federation, he belonged to the International Fencing Federation. He reluctantly gave up competitive foils after participating in the State championships in 1938, but continued as a teacher and critic. At the Olympic selection trials in 1959 and 1960 he deplored in biting tones the 'pauvre escrime', calling out 'Fisticuffs!', 'It's a circus!' and 'You can't blame them, of course. It's the man who taught them!'

The embodiment of a healthy, disciplined mind in a healthy, disciplined body, Finckh was a lean, spry man, slightly deaf, with a wry sense of humour that often bubbled into his medical correspondence. Pistol-shooting accompanied his fencing prowess. He never appeared to worry, although in World War I he was subjected to snide anti-German comments, despite his Australian birth. His motto was 'Be Content'. Survived by his wife, son and daughter, he died on 2 September 1961 at Mosman and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australian Science, 7, no 4, June 1989, p 393
  • Search, 20, no 1, 1989, p 27
  • South Pacific Journal of Natural Science, 11, 1991, p 15
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 1 July 1933, 22 Mar 1960, 9 Sept 1961
  • private information.

Citation details

Carol Cantrell, 'Finckh, Alfred Edmund (1866–1961)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 14 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


31 May, 1866
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


2 September, 1961 (aged 95)
Mosman, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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