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Cecil John Hackett (1905–1995)

by Philip Jones

This article was published:

Cecil John Hackett (1905–1995), physician, medical scientist, and physical anthropologist, was born on 25 April 1905 at Norwood, Adelaide, only son and younger child of Richard William Hackett, nurseryman, and his wife Bertha Matilda, née Tohl, both South Australian born. Cecil was educated at St Peter’s College Preparatory School and the Queen’s School. He completed his Leaving certificate in 1921 and then studied medicine at the University of Adelaide (MB, BS, 1927). There he became skilled in photography and rowing, and made lifelong friends.

During the 1925 summer vacation Hackett took the train to the Oodnadatta terminus and travelled on by truck to Alice Springs. There he observed an elderly Aboriginal woman with an advanced case of yaws that manifested as ‘boomerang leg’ (sabre tibia) severely distorting her shin bones. This stimulated his interest in the condition in Aboriginal populations. In 1927 he accompanied members of the university’s Board for Anthropological Research on its first Central Australian expedition. He recorded anthropometric measurements among Aboriginal people at Macumba and Alice Springs under the guidance of his friend and mentor, the dental anthropologist Thomas Draper Campbell.

After graduating, Hackett spent 1928 as resident medical officer at Adelaide Hospital. He then travelled to Britain and attended anthropological lectures before undertaking the diploma course at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (DTM&H, 1930). Securing a six-month position as RMO at the Hospital for Tropical Diseases, he also attended Professor (Sir) Francis Fraser’s influential clinics at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, which focused on the causes and mechanisms of disease. In 1931 he was admitted as a member of the Royal College of Physicians (fellow 1951). Early in the next year he successfully applied for a fellowship at the Henry Lester Institute of Medical Research at Shanghai, China. On 20 August 1932, shortly before departing from Britain, he married Edith Ochs, a German woman whom he had met several months before. Their relationship deteriorated en route and by October the marriage was over. In December Hackett resigned from his position, having been diagnosed with tuberculosis, and arrived home in January 1933.

Hackett reforged links with Adelaide’s anthropological community. During June and July that year he joined the anthropologist Norman Tindale and the bushman Allan Brumby on a journey by camel, accompanying about forty Pitjantjatjara people as they moved eastward through the Mann and Musgrave Ranges to a gathering at Ernabella. Hackett encountered more cases of boomerang leg and began to understand that the condition was spread through treponemal bacterial infection. As with earlier expeditions, he wrote and published reports on his anthropometric work, but this trip made a particular impression, as conveyed in his typescript ‘A letter about an unknown world,’ a reflective account illustrated with his own accomplished photographs.

By 1933 Hackett had examined the South Australian Museum’s osteological collection for evidence of yaws. He was confident of tracing the disease’s pathology but needed more data to produce a convincing thesis. In March 1934 he set out again for Alice Springs with a radiographer and mobile X-ray equipment, working with Arrernte people and related groups. The party then drove north to Darwin, visiting Aboriginal communities on the way. His findings from these expeditions and museum analyses were outlined in his thesis (later published as Boomerang Leg and Yaws in Australian Aborigines), for which the University of Adelaide would confer (1935) a doctorate in medicine. Two more expeditions followed: to Ooldea with Tindale (November 1934), and to Western Australia’s Warburton Range (July-August 1935).

During 1935 Hackett had been appointed as a part-time lecturer in physiology and pharmacology at the university, but he returned to Britain to study osteological anatomy at Cambridge. In November 1936 he was awarded a three-year research fellowship in tropical medicine by the Medical Research Council of Great Britain, enabling him to undertake two six-month visits to Lango in northern Uganda commencing radiographical research on bone lesions associated with yaws. The onset of World War II interrupted his work. On 10 September 1940 he was commissioned as a flight lieutenant in the medical branch of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. He was posted to West Africa (1941–42) and charged with minimising the effects of malaria. Returning to Britain, he taught tropical medicine to medical officers and rose to wing commander. During 1945 he served in Burma (Myanmar) before being demobilised in November. On 17 June 1939 at the register office, Paddington, London, he had married Bessie Beattie Shaw, a nurse.

In September 1945 Hackett was offered the directorship of London’s Wellcome Museum of Medical Science. He transformed it into an advanced postgraduate teaching museum of tropical medicine, updating its displays and research materials. At the same time he resumed his research, the resulting thesis being awarded a doctorate of philosophy by the University of London in 1948 and published as Bone Lesions of Yaws in Uganda in 1951. He continued to write on yaws, now realising that the disease could be controlled with penicillin. In mid-1954 he joined the World Health Organization and relocated to Geneva, Switzerland. There he led a program to eradicate the disease worldwide, through his own initiative of inoculating entire populations with low-dose, long-acting penicillin. By the time of his retirement in 1965, yaws and boomerang leg had been practically eliminated.

While Hackett acknowledged that he had a ‘tendency to fall out with’ his superiors (NLA MS 9580), others recalled his ‘sincerity and good humour,’ and ‘boyish enthusiasm’ (Duggan 1994-1997, 181). During 1966 and 1967 he undertook examinations of museum osteological collections around the world. His interest had shifted to the relationship between syphilis and yaws, and to the historical origins of syphilis in different populations. It was not until he began to succumb to Alzheimer’s disease during his late eighties that his research career drew to a close. He died in London on 8 April 1995, survived by Beattie and their two sons.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Cekalovic, Helen, Kate Domett, and Judith Littleton. ‘The History of Paleopathology in Australia.’ In The Global History of Paleopathology: Pioneers and Prospects, edited by Jane E. Buikstra and Charlotte A. Roberts, 583–93. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2012
  • Duggan, A. ‘Cecil John Hackett.’ Munk’s Roll (Royal College of Physicians, London) Vol. X (1994-1997): 181. Copy held on ADB file
  • Jones, Philip. Images of the Interior: Seven Central Australian Photographers. Kent Town, SA: Wakefield Press, 2011
  • National Library of Australia. MS 9580, Papers of Cecil Hackett, 1850–1997
  • South Australian Museum Archives. AA 122, Cecil John Hackett

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Philip Jones, 'Hackett, Cecil John (1905–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2020, accessed online 19 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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