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Port Augusta, South Australia

Port Augusta, the geographical centre of Australia

Port Augusta, a city of around 15 000 people, lies 320 kilometres north of Adelaide at the upper extremity of the Spencer Gulf, to the northeast of Port Pirie and the northwest of Whyalla.

Considered 'the geographical centre of Australia', it is uniquely placed, with access to the north, east and west of this vast country.

The early history of the Port Augusta medical practice was not easy to find, and we are indebted to the Port Augusta Public Library and Community Information Service for their help.

The records show that in 1923 a Dr Eric ‘Brickie' Symons succeeded Dr Peter Gorrie as the doctor in Port Augusta. Symons, who was born in Port Augusta, had returned to practice in his home town, which then numbered around 3000 people. He would practise there for 18 years.

After graduating from Adelaide University in 1917, Dr Symons went to serve in the Australian Imperial Force, before going on to practise at Kapunda, Broken Hill and Yankalilla. When he arrived back in Port Augusta, the neighbouring towns of Quorn, Wilmington and Whyalla were still without hospitals, which meant any medical or surgical problems were transported to his practice. Symons, together with the matron, performed both surgeries and midwifery, competently managing a huge and busy practice as the only practitioner.

In 1940, Dr Symons was joined by Dr John Thompson, who had just completed a years' residency at the Royal Adelaide Hospital after graduating from Adelaide University. Dr Thompson enlisted in the Army, but in 1941, after Dr Symons left to work in Adelaide, Dr Thompson was left as the only doctor in the town, and was more or less ordered to stay where he was.

Like Dr Symons, John Thompson was a ‘local', born in nearby Quorn to Horace, a builder, carpenter and undertaker, and Myrtle Alice, who lived to 102. Dr Thompson married Bonnie, a local girl, and they had two children: Robert, who became a GP at Murray Bridge, and Jenny, who went on to become a social worker and the wife of Ian Kerr, a GP in Adelaide. Dr Thompson is now 92, and, following major surgery from which he made a wonderful recovery, is a resident with his wife in an aged care facility in Quorn. When he retired, in 1990, Dr Thompson had been practising for 50 years in Port Augusta, making him one of the longest practising GPs in South Australia.

During his five decades in practice, Dr Thompson held many positions in the town, including:

  • 1941–1979 Medical superintendent, Port Augusta hospital
  • 1941–1970 Medical officer, Commonwealth Railways (later Australian National Railways) and Port Augusta Council
  • 1941–1991 Quarantine medical officer
  • 1954–1963 Medical officer, Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS)
  • 1939–1991
    • St John Ambulance commander, and member of brigade surgeon and member transport committees
    • Adjudicator for ambulance competitions
    • Railway first aid training officer for 40 years and examiner for interstate railway first aid competitions for 35 years
    • Rotary Club charter member, Rotary International Paul Harris Fellow.

Dr Thompson was also awarded an Order of Australia Medal (OAM) for services to medicine and the community.

Over the course of his career, Dr Thompson delivered some 4000 babies. He performed a wide range of surgeries, including bowel resections, cholecystectomies, hysterectomies, caesarean sections and orthopaedic procedures. In the Iron Triangle, as the area was known, there were no resident specialists in those early days, which meant Dr Thompson had to manage many road and industrial trauma cases, usually with the help of the hospital matron, Mary Fitzgerald. The doctor kept himself up to date by reading journals and later attending refresher courses. He was a great and willing mentor for his future partners.

In 1949, the late Dr Ian Furler joined the practice as a partner, and in 1953 they recruited another partner, Dr John Mickan, who remained in the practice for 22 years before returning to Adelaide. When Dr Furler left to pursue a career in obstetrics and gynaecology in 1955, Dr Robert Cooter and the late Dr John Bampton joined as partners, and this group worked together for the next 16 years. Dr Furler took up an appointment as medical superintendent at the Queen Victoria Maternity Hospital, and later obtained his MRCOG. In later years Dr Furler visited the practice on a regular basis, conducting both consulting and operating sessions. His son John is a GP in Victoria who has given great service to the college.

The four partners each became honorary medical officers of the town's 82 bed Government hospital. They continued practising as the Konanda Medical Clinic in a building on Church Street with purpose built rooms.

In 1955, the Port Augusta base of the RFDS was established, and the practice agreed to perform the medical services for the new organisation without remuneration until the service was in a financial position to employ their own full time doctor. The doctors conducted daily routine and emergency phone and radio consultations; eventually, monthly clinics were conducted at the outposts Andamooka, Oodnadatta and Maree. These clinics, which lasted 2 days, were done on a rotating basis by the four partners.

During this time, the doctors made a number of emergency flights. The first involved Dr Furler, just prior to his departure, when he had to evacuate a seriously ill septicaemic patient. Dr Mickan was flown to Oodnadatta to perform a forceps delivery on an aboriginal woman, assisted by the resident sister, who administered an open ether anaesthetic.

A local dentist, Dr Ralph Ockenden, and optometrist, Mr Don Jessop (later a senator), were co-opted into the service, and joined the clinic flights several times each year.

The practice during this period was extremely busy, and getting busier. The partners enlisted the services of an assistant, whose primary work in the practice was to assist the RFDS, and, when available, the partners. Doctors who worked in this capacity were:

  • Dr Phillip McDougall (later a urologist)
  • Dr Roger Beverly, and
  • Dr Richard Cockington (later a paediatrician).

Eventually, in 1967, the RFDS were able to employ their own Flying Doctor. The partners were all very proud to have been associated with this wonderful service and to have been able to assist in the formation of its Port Augusta base.

The four doctors continued in general practice, providing service to a large and far flung community that stretched north to Marree and west to Cook, in addition to the town's growing population. The GPs all performed surgical procedures, obstetrics and anaesthetics, and assisted at operations. After hours emergencies were managed, as well as trauma and numerous hospital services.

Growth in the town continued, with the building of the Northern Electricity Trust power station in 1948 using coal from the Leigh Creek mine, and the redevelopment of the transcontinental line from Port Augusta to Kalgoorlie by Commonwealth Railways. The town soon became a base for servicing and building rolling stock.

An interesting and rewarding event occurred in the 1960s . Between 1949 and 1961, there were 10 cases of fatal fulminating meningitis of undiagnosed cause. Later, three cases were sent to Adelaide, where the late Dr Malcolm Fowler performed autopsies. In 1965, Dr Fowler decided that what he had labelled macrophages in brain tissue were in fact amoebae. In 1966, a spinal tap on a young patient with meningitis revealed, on microscopy, a large number of living amoebae. These were seen by Dr Cooter and Dr Mickan, and it is believed that this was the first time a clinical diagnosis of Amoebic Meningitis was made in Australia, and possibly in the world. The doctors alerted the authorities to the possible source: the Morgan-Whyalla pipeline, which supplied water to the north of South Australia. Amoebae were subsequently found in tap water at the house of one of the unfortunate victims of the disease. Hyperchlorination of the water in the pipeline was instituted and as far as the doctors are aware, no further cases of the disease have been recorded.

After the late Dr John Bampton returned to Adelaide, new partners were recruited and they remained in the practice for various periods. They included:

  • Dr Alan Limmer
  • Dr Hugh Dinnick
  • Dr Philip Wilkinson
  • Mr Ajay Poddar
  • Dr Joe Cheng
  • Dr Robert Edmond
  • Dr Prabash Goel
  • Dr Patrick Fanning
  • Dr Iain McIntyre

As so often happens in rural practice, Dr Cooter returned to Adelaide in 1972 after 16 years of valuable service to the practice and the population of the city. The main reason for his departure from Port Augusta was the further education of his children. Like the late Dr Limmer, Dr Cooter was later appointed President of the Central Section of the RFDS, and took a great interest in rural medicine. He has made a considerable contribution in this area of general practice. An interesting story surrounds Dr Cooter's replacement in the practice, Dr Fanning. Dr Fanning was interviewed by Dr McDougall, who was in the UK on a study tour. Dr McDougall had worked in Port Augusta, as an assistant performing RFDS duties for the practice.

Dr Mickan returned to Adelaide in 1975 after 22 years of service in Port Augusta and surrounding communities, and reunited in practice with one of his early partners in Port Augusta, the late Dr Bampton. Like Dr Thompson, Dr Mickan had seen many medicos come and go. Dr Thompson then continued to practice with:

  • Dr Fanning
  • Dr McIntyre
  • Dr Goel
  • Dr Bhola
  • Dr Yeung

Dr Thompson remained in the practice until his retirement in 1990. He gave 50 years of outstanding service to the community.

The Konanda Medical Clinic was dissolved in 2002. Dr Fanning had been in the practice for 30 years and Dr McIntyre for 28 years. They continued to work in association in Port Augusta for some years, but both now reside in Adelaide. Port Augusta is now served by both resident and visiting specialists from many disciplines, in addition to a number of GP groups, resident RFDS doctors, resident public service doctors and regional health service providers.

John Mickan

23 February 2009

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