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Harold John Ham (1902–1995)

by Audrey Tate

This article was published:

Harold John Ham (1902–1995), radiotherapist and professor of radiotherapeutics, was born on 19 October 1902 at Kew, Melbourne, youngest of three surviving children of Victorian-born parents Walter James Ham, public servant, and his wife Annie, née Anderson. Following his early education at State schools at Kew, Harold won scholarships to Scotch College and later to the University of Melbourne (MB, BS, 1926). He then worked as a resident medical officer in Melbourne hospitals until 1930, when he left for studies in England.

From the beginning Ham’s dominant personality trait was to throw himself wholly into whatever he was engaged in at the time, a characteristic he retained throughout his life. His interest in X-rays began when he was house physician at the City of London Chest Hospital, Bethnal Green. While working at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, and as a general practitioner, he commenced training for the University of Cambridge’s diploma in medical radiology and electrology (1932). On 4 August 1932 at the Register Office, Kensington, he married Mona Campbell Mackenzie; they had met while he was working at the (Royal) Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, where she was a nursing sister. Following a period as a radiologist at Ashton-under-Lyne, in 1934 he joined the Christie Hospital and Holt Radium Institute in Manchester as an assistant radiologist, working with the renowned director Ralston Paterson and the physicist H. M. Parker. In later life he saw this early training as crucial to his development as a ‘good radiotherapist’ (Ryan, Sutton, and Baigent 1996, 229). He became a member in 1934 of the British Association of Radiologists and the next year of the Society of Radiotherapists of Great Britain and Ireland. When these organisations merged to form the Faculty of Radiologists in 1939 he became a foundation fellow.

Invited by Tom Nisbet to join his practice in Macquarie Street, Sydney, Ham returned to Australia in 1936. He joined the honorary medical staff of both the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and the Royal North Shore Hospital, positions he would hold until he retired in 1962. An honorary captain (later major), (Royal) Australian Army Medical Corps Reserve (1941–54), in World War II he worked two days per week at the 113th Australian General Hospital, Concord, and trained military medical officers in radiology.

In 1943 Ham was honorary secretary of the committee that invited Paterson to New ­South Wales to provide advice on radiotherapy services. Assisted by (Sir) Harold Dew, he founded the University of Sydney’s diploma of therapeutic radiology—later to be replaced by the College of Radiologists (Australia and New Zealand) examination—while also lecturing and examining part time for the university. He was elected to the council of the Australian and New Zealand Association of Radiology in 1947. When the association became a college in 1949 he held various positions within it, becoming president from 1960 to 1961.

From 1956 Ham was involved in the new cobalt beam therapy and from 1960 to 1966 was a member of the National Health and Medical Research Council. Vice-chairman of the Australian delegation to Copenhagen in 1953 for the International Congress of Radiology, in 1962 he became a fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians. The World Health Organization’s offer of a three-month consultancy in South-East Asia proved to be the forerunner of many overseas consultancies he undertook, including in India, Sri Lanka, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, and Iran. Finally, in 1966 he became professor in radiotherapeutics at Utrecht University, the Netherlands. He retired once more in 1972.

These activities entailed a great deal of travelling, during which Ham and his wife would often take their three children. Harold always gave Mona full recognition for her part in making his career a success. At the same time she was active in her own sphere, and in 1955 formed the New South Wales Cancer Patients’ Assistance Fund (later Society) to support country patients; this initiative led to the foundation of the Jean Colvin Hospital, Darling Point, and to the provision of accommodation at Ecclesbourne, Double Bay. In 1971 she was appointed MBE.

After Ham retired, he and Mona turned their energies to travel and art. In Sydney in the 1960s they had attended Roland Wakelin’s art classes. They bought a flat in Spain to use as a European base for travel, and for sketching and painting. Elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, London, in 1977, Harold was still painting in 1992, when he held an exhibition of his work, based on his travel sketchbooks, at the Moore Park Gallery, Redfern. He also enjoyed golf and tennis.

Following Mona’s death in 1983, from 1986 Harold joined a fellow retired radiologist, Ted Booth, in working as an honorary librarian at the Royal Australasian College of Radiologists. In 1989 he was awarded the college’s gold medal in recognition of his place as ‘one of that small band who could be regarded as a founding father of both the clinical practice of Radiation Oncology in Australasia and also the RACR’ (Tate 1999, 105). He completed writing his memoirs in 1991. In his final years he lived quietly in his Sydney flat. He died on 14 June 1995 at Paddington, survived by his two sons and one daughter, and was cremated after a memorial service at St Mark’s Anglican Church, Darling Point. In an obituary the radiation oncologist Graeme Morgan described him as a ‘remarkable man’ who had led a ‘full and wonderful life,’ and as ‘one of our most esteemed and respected colleagues in Radiation Oncology and one of the founding fathers of [the] College’ (1996, 467–68).

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Ham, Harold J. ‘Memoirs of a Senior Radiologist. Including Some Account of the Development of Radiotherapy in Australia.’ Unpublished manuscript, Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Radiologists archives
  • Morgan, Graeme. ‘Harold John Ham (1902–1995).’ Australasian Radiology 40, no. 4 (November 1996): 467–68
  • Ryan, James, Keith Sutton, and Malcolm Baigent. Australasian Radiology: A History. Sydney: McGraw-Hill, 1996
  • Tate, Audrey. Shadows and Substance: The History of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Radiologists 1949–1999. St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1999

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Citation details

Audrey Tate, 'Ham, Harold John (1902–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2020, accessed online 26 May 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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