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Fraenkel, Gustav Julius (Gus) (1919–1998)

by John Chalmers

This article was published online in 2022

Gus Fraenkel, by Australian Information Service, 1973

Gus Fraenkel, by Australian Information Service, 1973

National Library of Australia, 44035853

Gustav Julius Fraenkel (1919–1998), surgeon and academic, was born on 28 May 1919 in Berlin, eldest of five children of Eduard David Mortier Fraenkel, university lecturer in Latin, and his wife Ruth, née von Velsen. His father was an atheist who had renounced his Jewish faith in his student days, while his mother was a Lutheran of Westphalian descent, who held a doctorate in classical philosophy. The family moved to Kiel in 1923 when Eduard was appointed professor of Latin, and then to Göttingen (1928), and Freiberg (1931). In Kiel, Gus learned to swim in the harbour waters, and became interested in sailing, in ships, and a career in the navy. From about 1930, his parents became increasingly concerned at Hitler’s ascendancy and the introduction of anti-Semitic regulations. In February 1933 Eduard was forbidden to teach and in November he was dismissed.

The family moved to England in 1934 and Eduard, who by now had an international reputation as a Latin scholar, accepted a post at the University of Cambridge which he held until he was appointed professor of Latin at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. Gus completed his secondary education at Perse School (1934–38), Cambridge. He, along with his family, became naturalised British citizens on 24 August 1939, just before the outbreak of World War II. Developing an interest in medicine, he began studying at the University of Oxford (BA, 1941; BM BCh, 1943; MA, 1945; MCh, 1949) as a non-collegiate student attached to St Catherine’s Society, winning the Radcliffe prize in obstetrics. Following graduation, he had appointments as junior house surgeon at the Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford, before moving to hospitals at Harefield, Worcester, and Nottingham, and at St Paul’s in London. Although he remained interested in the military, he was deemed unfit for duty in the Royal Naval Medical Service and the Royal Army Medical Corps, because of his severe myopia.

In 1951 Fraenkel returned to Oxford as surgical tutor at the Radcliffe, where his mentors included Sir Howard Florey and Sir Hugh Cairns. Here he was attached to the department of neurological surgery where, under Cairns, he was involved in the treatment of head injuries. Following Cairns’s death, he moved to the Nuffield Institute for Medical Research, where he worked with R. G. Macfarlane on the problems of invasive surgery in haemophiliac patients and published papers in the Lancet and the British Journal of Surgery. At the Nuffield he met Ruth Marie Gwendolyn Anderson, a Canadian-born medical laboratory technician. The couple married on 4 May 1957 at Mansfield College Chapel, Oxford. While the ceremony was conducted according to the rites of the Independents, Gus, like his father, was a confirmed atheist.

During the next year Fraenkel was asked to apply for the chair of surgery at the University of Otago at Dunedin, New Zealand. He refused, saying the university would have to invite him to take up the post; within a few weeks, he was offered the position. In Dunedin he introduced vascular surgery and operated on patients with serious vascular problems such as leaking aneurysms of the abdominal aorta. He was a founding member of the Surgical Research Society of Australasia, and hosted its inaugural meeting in 1962. His publications included several papers on medical education, including co-authoring, with John Ludbrook, the booklet Guide to House Surgeons in the Surgical Unit in 1961, which ran to several updated editions. On sabbatical in the United States of America in 1965, he spent the year as visiting professor in surgery at the Harvard Medical School, Boston, where his focus was on teaching, research, and surgical innovation.

In 1970 Fraenkel moved to Adelaide as the founding dean and chairman of the planned medical school at Flinders University of South Australia. He built a strong partnership with John Blandford, the centre’s first administrator, and was supported by the vice-chancellor Peter Karmel, and Brian Shea, the director general of health in South Australia. Fraenkel and Blandford developed an innovative plan for a medical centre and a medical school that was indivisible, housed in a single building complex—the Flinders Medical Centre—that opened in 1976. Fraenkel also had a talent for recruiting skilled local and international staff, imbuing them with a commitment to his ‘beloved “tripod”’ (Chalmers 1998, 14) integrating patient-care with teaching and research.

Although Fraenkel could be reticent and quietly spoken, he was a determined administrator and a powerful negotiator (SAMHS n.d.). He took delight in the Adelaide cocktail circuit, where he gathered a wealth of information on the current agendas of those in the seats of power. His friends and colleagues recalled his ready smile, his loud, whole body laugh, and his ability to regale them with stories from his past. He served on the Medical Board of South Australia (president 1983–84) and was a consultant (1980–84) for the Australian Universities International Development Program on the establishment of a medical sciences school at the Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang. After retiring from Flinders in 1984, he retained an office and continued to provide some surgical tutorials. The university, having presented him with a distinguished service award in 1980, conferred an honorary doctorate of medicine in 1985. In that year he was also appointed AM.

From 1985 to 1990 Fraenkel took on the part-time post of chief executive officer of the Royal Children’s Hospital Research Foundation in Melbourne, and travelled there for two weeks every month. He also wrote a biography of his much-admired mentor, Hugh Cairns. Predeceased by his wife in 1990, he died at Daw Park, Adelaide, on 11 September 1998 and was cremated. His daughter and both of his sons followed him into medicine. The Flinders Medical Centre houses a portrait of him by Clifton Pugh and renamed its medical library in his honour.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Chalmers, John. ‘Surgeon United Clinic and School.’ Australian, 25 September 1998, 14
  • Flinders University Library, Special Collections. Gus Fraenkel Collection
  • Fraenkel, Margaret. Personal communication
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • South Australian Medical Heritage Society (SAMHS). ‘Professor G. J. Fraenkel AM BM MCh (Oxon) FRCS FRACS FACMA (1919–1998).’ Gallery of Notable Medical Individuals in South Australia. n.d. Accessed 19 July 2022. https://www.samhs.org.au/Virtual%20Museum/Notable-individuals/Gus%20Fraenkel/Professor_Gus_Fraenkel.pdf. Copy held on ADB file
  • Royal College of Surgeons of England. ‘Fraenkel, Gustav Julius (1919–1998).’ Plarr’s Lives of the Fellows. 2015. Accessed 19 July 2022. https://livesonline.rcseng.ac.uk/client/en_GB/lives/search/detailnonmodal/ent:$002f$002fSD_ASSET$002f0$002fSD_ASSET:380782/one?qu=%22RCS%3A+E008599%22. Copy held on ADB file

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Citation details

John Chalmers, 'Fraenkel, Gustav Julius (Gus) (1919–1998)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fraenkel-gustav-julius-gus-32501/text40330, published online 2022, accessed online 6 December 2022.

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