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William Allan Hailes (1891–1949)

by Benjamin K. Rank

This article was published:

William Allan Hailes (1891-1949), surgeon, was born on 9 June 1891 at Moonee Ponds, Melbourne, son of Walter Crossdell Hailes, commercial traveller and later manufacturer, and his wife Isabel McDonald, née Smith, both Melbourne-born. At Essendon Grammar School, and later at Scotch College, he established a fine record as a scholar and sportsman which he continued at the University of Melbourne (M.B., Ch.B., 1914). Cricket remained his first love in sport; he gained his university blue in 1911 and after World War I captained Essendon in district cricket.

His early professional interests focused on medicine and paediatrics but, after one year as a hospital resident, in January 1915 he was commissioned a captain in the Australian Army Medical Corps, Australian Imperial Force, and in November embarked for overseas. With the 20th Battalion, he was twice mentioned in dispatches and won the Distinguished Service Order in November 1917. In January next year he transferred to the 1st Australian General Hospital at Rouen and was then attracted to a career in surgery.

After the armistice Hailes stayed on in London to gain his F.R.C.S. in 1919. He returned to Melbourne in January 1920 and on 29 March at Malvern Presbyterian Church married Mary Maud Whitfield, a nursing sister at the (Royal) Melbourne Hospital. He set up in general practice at Moonee Ponds but was soon appointed honorary out-patient surgeon and clinical lecturer in surgery to the Melbourne Hospital. Many stories are told of how he rode his bicycle from Moonee Ponds to the hospital at all hours of day and night, conscious only of his duties and obligations to his hospital appointment and his general practice. He quickly established a high reputation as a consulting surgeon in the keen competition of the time.

In 1934 Hailes became honorary surgeon to in-patients at the hospital and relinquished his general practice. He had rapidly earned popularity as a devoted teacher with a gift of making students feel that he was 'on their side'. In 1936 he became dean of the hospital clinical school, and in 1937 Stewart lecturer in surgery at the university.

In December 1940 Hailes was appointed consulting surgeon to the A.I.F. with the rank of colonel. In this role he was never tied to base headquarters but was out seeing the units at work; he knew his men and their capabilities, and ensured that the right officers got appropriate postings, being always ready to circumvent or breach the rules of 'seniority'. In October 1942 he became director of surgery, with promotion to brigadier in February 1944.

His attitudes towards fostering the young and the place of apprenticeship as opposed to 'teaching' are well set out in his George Adlington Syme Oration (1947). It was a thesis he had scrupulously applied as censor-in-chief (1943) and as councillor (from 1944) of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons.

Hailes died of hypertensive cerebro-vascular disease on 22 January 1949 at East Melbourne. Survived by his wife and three daughters, he was cremated. A memorial fund in his name set up and furnished the 'Hailes Room' at the R.A.C.S.

A naturally friendly person, Bill Hailes never lost the common touch or forgot that he himself was once a student and novice helped along by others. He was blessed with the rare hallmark of true greatness—humility. There was no trace of flamboyance or false pride in his make-up. He attracted loyalty not only among his students because of his standard of teaching but also from the many who had the good fortune to come within his orbit throughout his personal and professional life.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Rank, Jerry Moore and Some of His Contemporaries (Melb, 1975)
  • Australian and New Zealand Journal of Surgery, 19 (1949), 1, p 1.

Citation details

Benjamin K. Rank, 'Hailes, William Allan (1891–1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 15 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

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