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Rolf ten Seldam (1906–1982)

by Clement Mulcahy

This article was published:

Rolf Eduard Jan ten Seldam (1906-1982), professor of pathology, was born on 2 April 1906 in Batavia, Netherlands East Indies (Jakarta, Indonesia), son of Roelof ten Seldam, soldier, and his wife Cornelia, née van Ellinckhvysen. Rolf studied medicine at Leiden University, the Netherlands (MD, 1932). On 23 September 1932 at The Hague he married Maria Adriana Sophie Kluit, known as Mary. He worked as a pathologist at Rotterdam and The Hague before being appointed director of the Dutch East Indies Cancer Institute, Bandung, Java, in 1936.

A medical officer on the reserve of the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army in 1941-46, ten Seldam was captured by the Japanese and spent three and a half years in prisoner-of-war camps. During his internment he met Australian prisoners of war who impressed him with descriptions of their homeland. Following his repatriation he was appointed director of pathology for a group of hospitals in Eindhoven.

Ten Seldam migrated to Australia in 1952, when he was appointed senior lecturer in pathology at the University of Sydney; he was promoted to reader in 1956. The next year he became foundation professor of pathology at the University of Western Australia and head of the Royal Perth Hospital department of pathology. It was in this role that the self-styled Dutch ‘reffo’ had his greatest influence. Ten Seldam relished the challenge of establishing ‘a department which could become a model for others in Australia producing the closest possible integration of University and Hospital Departments’. Undeterred by an initial lack of equipment (a single microscope was shared by his staff of eight), he forged an outstanding research faculty. Ten Seldam was widely regarded as the father of the medical school of the University of Western Australia. His creativity and assiduous approach to research, combined with his forthright personality and ability to identify recruits and retain people of talent, gave him legendary stature.

An enthusiastic committee member, ten Seldam had served on the New South Wales Cancer Council and acted as secretary of the pathology section in the British Medical Association. In recognition of his medical work and services to humanity, Queen Juliana of the Netherlands appointed him an officer in the Order of Orange-Nassau in 1960. In 1966 he was appointed dean of the medical school of the University of Western Australia and head of the World Health Organization’s international reference centre for skin tumours.

Although he retired in 1971, ten Seldam continued his research into skin cancer at the Queen Elizabeth II Medical Centre, Perth. In 1976 the Western Australian Cancer Council honoured him by establishing a student scholarship. Ben Joel painted his portrait in 1977. Besides pathology, ten Seldam’s other great interest was horticulture; he was especially skilled in the cultivation of gerberas, hippeastrums and African violets.

Survived by his wife and their two sons, ten Seldam died on 19 October 1982 in Perth and was cremated. In 2009 the Dawkins Foundation created a bachelor of medical science scholarship in his honour. A street in the City of Melville (suburb of Winthrop), Western Australia, was named for him.

Select Bibliography

  • N. Stanley (ed), Faculty of Medicine (1982)
  • Pathology, no 15, 1983, p 508
  • West Australian, 2 May 1960, p 10, 16 Feb 1966, p 13, 31 Dec 1971, p 7, 2 Sept 1976, p 28, 22 Oct 1982, p 21
  • C. Jeffery, taped interview with R. E. J. ten Seldam (1981-82, State Library of Western Australia)
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Citation details

Clement Mulcahy, 'ten Seldam, Rolf (1906–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 13 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


2 April, 1906
Jakarta, Indonesia


19 October, 1982 (aged 76)
Perth, Western Australia, Australia

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