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Freida Ruth Heighway (1907–1963)

by Ronald Elmslie and Susan Nance

This article was published:

This is a shared entry with Andrew Arthur Abbie

Andrew Arthur Abbie (1905-1976), anatomist and anthropologist, and Freida Ruth Heighway (1907-1963), gynaecologist, were husband and wife. Andrew was born on 8 February 1905 at Gillingham, Kent, England, only son and eldest child of William Christie Abbie, engine-room artificer, R.N., and his wife Minnie Catherine, née Baylis. Educated at Sir Joseph Williamson's Mathematical School, Rochester, he held a Kent County scholarship and matriculated at the University of London in 1922. The family migrated to New South Wales and in 1924 Andrew enrolled at the University of Sydney (B.Sc., M.B., B.S., 1929) where he won several prizes and graduated with second-class honours. The university awarded him an M.D. in 1936 and, for two papers published in the Journal of Comparative Neurology, a D.Sc. in 1941.

On completing his training, Abbie had been appointed to Royal Prince Alfred Hospital as resident medical officer to (Sir) Hugh Poate and (Sir) Charles Blackburn. In 1930 Abbie published his first paper dealing with the treatment of a patient with diabetic coma. Two years later he took up a Walter and Eliza Hall travelling fellowship, enabling him to work under (Sir) Grafton Elliot Smith at University College, London (Ph.D., 1934), where he won the Johnston Symington prize of the Anatomical Society of Great Britain and Ireland. On 7 November 1934 in Moore Theological College chapel, Newtown, Sydney, Abbie married Freida Ruth Heighway. Next year he became senior lecturer in anatomy at the University of Sydney. He continued his researches on neuroanatomy, and wrote and illustrated two undergraduate texts, The Principles of Anatomy (1940) and Human Physiology (1941).

Ruth had been born on 2 June 1907 in Sydney. Educated at Methodist Ladies' College, Burwood, she graduated from the University of Sydney (M.B., B.S., 1930; M.D., 1939). In 1932 she travelled to Britain where she spent some months in Edinburgh before obtaining a resident appointment at St Mary's Hospital, Manchester, England. Having completed two years training in obstetrics and gynaecology, she became a member (fellow 1958) of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. In 1934 she returned to Sydney and entered general practice at Burwood; she then took rooms in Macquarie Street and obtained honorary appointments at the Rachel Forster Hospital for Women and Children, and the Women's Hospital, Crown Street. During World War II Ruth raised the three daughters of her marriage.

In December 1941 Abbie was called up for full-time duty in the Australian Military Forces with the rank of captain. On 11 August 1942 he transferred to the Australian Imperial Force and in September, as a major, was selected for training at the Chemical Warfare Physiology School, University of Melbourne. From March 1943 he trained medical personnel in methods of treating chemical warfare casualties; early in 1944 he moved with the school to Townsville, Queensland, to investigate the physiological effects of war gases under tropical conditions. Briefly at Port Moresby, Papua, he relinquished his A.I.F. appointment in December 1944 to take up the Elder chair of anatomy and histology at the University of Adelaide.

Although Abbie continued his interest in neuroanatomy and neurophysiology, the appointment required prodigious effort in planning a new medical school building and in preparing for postwar enrolments. For years he did much of the lecturing; in making blackboard illustrations, he used both hands simultaneously and built up the components with such skill that students long remembered his classes, particularly those in neuroanatomy. An erect, somewhat aloof man, he was fastidious in dress and meticulous in every matter. He was an assiduous worker, spurred on, perhaps by early deprivations, to succeed in a field which then attracted some of the best medical graduates. As in other small university departments with long-serving staff and limited resources, opportunities for postgraduate research were limited. He was associate dean (1949 and 1955-59) and dean (1950-52) of his faculty at a time when the clinical and para-clinical departments were expanding and modernizing.

In 1950 Abbie wrote his first paper on the anatomical features of the Australian Aborigines. Thereafter he concentrated on gathering information about the social and physical characteristics of these people for whom he had high regard. In 1951-64 his department mounted expeditions to Aboriginal communities in South Australia and the Northern Territory. Abbie and his colleagues collected anthropomorphic data which formed the basis of his book, The Original Australians (1969): it was a personal account for the general reader and quickly ran to a second edition. He retired from the university in 1970.

Abbie had been president of the Anthropological Society of South Australia (1948 and 1959) and of the anthropological section of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (1951). In 1963-72 he was chairman of the South Australian Board of Aboriginal Affairs. His concern for integration led him to propose two scholarships for Aborigines at Presbyterian Girls' College, Adelaide, where he chaired (1951-66) the council. He was a foundation and life member of the Anatomical Society of Australia and New Zealand (acting-president 1964; president 1965-67), and was, as well, a life member (1971) of the Anatomical Society of Great Britain and Ireland. During his academic career Abbie published over 120 papers, mostly as sole author.

When she had moved with her family to Adelaide in 1945, Ruth found her specialty entirely served by men. Undaunted, she set up a solo specialist practice which grew quickly. While her honorary work was centred on the Queen Victoria Maternity Hospital, she also held appointments at the Royal Adelaide and Queen Elizabeth hospitals. Tall, gracious and commanding, Dr Heighway was dedicated to her patients and allowed neither personal activities nor twelve years of physical illness to divert her attention from them. Somewhat uncompromising in earlier years, she grew more tolerant at a time when age sometimes renders the reverse. She died of ovarian cancer on 30 December 1963 in the Memorial Hospital, North Adelaide, and was cremated. A prize given by the University of Adelaide commemorates her.

On 14 February 1967 in the Unitarian Christian Church, Adelaide, Abbie married a physiotherapist Audrey Katherine Allen Simpson. Survived by her, and by the three daughters of his first marriage, he died on 22 July 1976 at his Unley Park home and was cremated. A memorial lecture at the university was endowed by his widow. Many of Abbie's papers and books are held in the university's Barr Smith Library; another 1615 items are housed at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • Medical Journal of Australia, 4 June 1977
  • Australia Council, Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, Council Minutes, 14 Mar 1964 (held at the College, Sydney)
  • Abbie family papers (privately held)
  • University of Adelaide Archives
  • University of Sydney Archives
  • information from Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Canberra.

Citation details

Ronald Elmslie and Susan Nance, 'Heighway, Freida Ruth (1907–1963)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 14 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

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