Chapman, Henry George

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Henry George Chapman(1879-1934)

MB 1899; BS 1900; MD 1902 Melbourne)

The story of Professor Henry George Chapman is one of ultimate disgrace. Our medical school history records that after being caught embezzling cancer research funds in 1934 he took to his room in the Physics Building and suicided by taking a mixture of well chosen poisons. Chapman’s early work, however, was interesting for its time and deserves to be noted for its worth. In particular, Chapman and his research team carried out the world’s first anthropometric study of women’s measurements in collaboration with Berlei Limited in 1926.

Henry George Chapman (1879 – 1934) was born in Ealing, Middlesex, England in 1879. Coming to Australia, he was educated in Melbourne and won a state scholarship to the University of Melbourne to study medicine. As an undergraduate, he was awarded First-class Honours and exhibitions in anatomy, physiology and pathology. At the University of Melbourne, Chapman was inspired by the great physiologist Sir Charles James Martin, who had left the Sydney Medical School and Anderson Stuart for a career in Melbourne. Chapman graduated in 1899 and became McBain Research Scholar in biology, researching toxins under Martin’s expert guidance. In 1901 he served as Acting Professor of Physiology at the University of Adelaide in the absence of Sir Edward Stirling. There he gave instruction in Physiology, Embryology and Biology. At the end of his term there he was awarded an honorary degree of Bachelor of Medicine.

Chapman came to the University of Sydney in 1903 as a lecturer and demonstrator in Physiology, conducting classes in pharmacology, histology, experimental physiology and physiological chemistry. With his keen interest in pharmacology and plant physiology, he was appointed honorary pathological chemist at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in 1907. Professor Anderson Stuart took a liking to Chapman, making him his favourite protégé and facilitating his rapid graduation to assistant professor of physiology in 1913.

Chapman had a flair for networking and established a strong interest in public health and its connection to industry. He made a name for himself and was often asked to consult or give evidence in industrial cases. An expert on toxins, as early as 1908 he gave evidence before the Western Australian Royal Commission into meat supply and use of the preservative sulphur dioxide in processing.

He was fascinated by biochemistry and plant products and possessed a sound knowledge of botany. Alongside Dr J Petrie he continued to research vegetable physiology and plant poisons. His knowledge of yeast activity provided him the opportunity to offer a series of lectures on the technology of break making at the Sydney Technical College. With Chapman as Director, the College established the first practical school of bakery in 1916, which quickly gathered the support of the trade.

In 1917, Chapman accepted the Chair of Pharmacology at the University of Sydney. In this role, Chapman’s most useful work was as chairman of the complex technical commission of inquiry into the prevalence of miners’ phthisis and pneumoconiosis in the Broken Hill mines. According to the late Professor Peter Bishop, Chapman was tall and craggy, with a dominating personality and won the confidence of the union leaders and the assistance of the mine managers despite a bitter strike. Chapman’s report established that the Broken Hill mines did cause the industrial disease as the result of inhaling dust, Chapman recommended for immediate measures which included compensation for all persons affected and, implicitly, the 35 hour working week. He then played an honourable part in settling the strike by withholding the names of the 251 men suffering from lung disease until compensation was certain.

Chapman accepted the Chair of Pharmacology at the University of Sydney on invitation of the Senate in 1917. Two years later, when the Senate amalgamated Pharmacology into Physiology, Chapman succeeded in his application for Chair, after Professor Anderson Stuart.

Chapman remained an influential ambassador for industrial causes. In 1924 he visited England on behalf of the Australian Meat Council and the following year attended the conference on the reorganisation of the Commonwealth Institute of Science and Industry.

In 1926, the underwear and corsetry manufacturer, Berlei Limited, commissioned the Sydney Medical School to undertake the world’s first anthropometric study of women to determine more accurate body shapes and sizes for the designs of their corsetry and underwear. This project has strongly influenced our standards of women’s fashion and design.

An Australian manufacturer, Berlei commissioned a team, led by Professor Chapman to measure 6000 Australian women and to provide a tabulated analysis of the findings. Carried out from October 1926 through 1927, the measuring was done around the country in locations such as factories, sea-side holiday resorts and Turkish baths, which were popular at the time. The payment for carrying out the project was ten thousand pounds, paid out in full Berlei shares.

Chapman led the team and enlisted anatomy colleague Dr Stewart Arthur Smith (younger brother of Grafton Elliot) and the services of two science students as research assistants. One of them, Mr R Tannahill, a Bachelor of Science (Hons) student was appointed in charge of the collection, classification and correlation of the data obtained. The age of the survey participants was between 15 and 65. Twenty three different measurements were taken from each woman, barefoot in a bathing costume. Directions for measuring were as exact as possible so that uniformity was attempted. Shoulder height, for example, was defined as the height of the upper aspect of the right acromion process; the gluteal fold as the junction of the gluteal muscle with the posterior aspect of the thigh and the height to the thigh fold as the line of Poupart’s ligament between the trunk and the thigh when the subject sits. Various callipers and rulers were designed to carry out these tasks. At the culmination of the project, Berlei provided their data to the Department of Health and the survey became known as the National Census of Women’s Measurements.

From the findings, Berlei developed their five figure-type classification scheme – ‘Sway Back’, ‘Hip’, ‘Average’, ‘Abdomen’, and ‘Short Below Waist’. The second research assistant, Della Lytton Oakley (nee Pratt, BSc 1928 USyd) worked alongside Tannahill and invented a device which allowed the team to measure and determine these figure types with more precision. This ‘nomogram’ became known and patented as the Berlei Figure Type Indicator, patented under the name of Della Pratt. After the study the nomogram was produced and sent out to retailers enabling them to take the customer's exact measurements and then use them to classify the woman's figure for product selection. The five figure-type classification scheme and the Berlei Figure Type Indicator were in use for decades until corsetry as an undergarment declined in popularity.

In 1957, Berlei again commissioned the University of Sydney, this time medical school alumnus Henry Oliver Lancaster (MB BS 1937 MD 1967 DSc 1971 PhD 1953 BA 1947), then Professor of Mathematical Statistics, to review the findings and make publish a summary and a series of anthropometric graphs from the original data. This summary is published in Medical Journal of Australia, (December 1957). Reading through Lancaster’s report, it seems that Berlei Limited were keen to revisit and publish their original findings in the light of further anthropometric studies completed in the United States, England and Australia. In 1941, O’Brien and Shelton had produced a standard for “Women’s Measurements for Garment and Pattern Construction” which became the benchmark for clothing manufacture in the United States. Two years later in the United Kingdom, W F Kemsley conducted a comparative survey known as the “Weight and Height of a Population in 1943” which was used to dictate the sizing of British produced women’s clothing. Here in Australia, a Dr J M Woodhill conducted a survey in 1950 which resulted in “A Standard of Weight for Height and Age of Australian Women”. In Lancaster’s précis of this work he found that Woodhill’s results were very similar to the original Berlei data collected by Chapman and his team.

Chapman had been a member of the University’s Committee of Direction since it’s appointment by the University in 1922. In 1926, a public appeal launched by Chancellor Sir William Cullen had raised over 120,000 pounds for the Cancer Research Fund. Chapman made application for the role of Director of Cancer Research in 1927 and was offered the position after another applicant had turned it down. In his application, Chapman cited his interest in the biochemical problems of cancers, alongside his role in the investigations of biophysical and biological studies that had been commenced by the team of investigators. In addition, he sought to continue his studies into the genesis of cancer in particular families, a study he had begun in England and had reported on to the Research Committee of the British Empire Cancer Campaign. Despite these grand claims, there was some consternation in regard to Chapman’s appointment, particularly from members of the Faculty of Science who doubted his integrity and scientific methods. In Sydney, Chapman made little contribution to research yet continued to use his public standing to retain favour. He issued the public with soothing statistics to assure them that their money was well spent and science was on the brink of discovering a cure for cancer. Once, Chapman took the opportunity to advertise his own experiments in the treatment of cancer. He had “macerated a portion of a patient’s own tumour, made an emulsion of it and injected it back into the patient”. Of this method he made no promises to the public but solemnly stated that he believed he had opened up a promising line of attack on cancer. It became apparent to other members of the Cancer Research Committee that Chapman’s knowledge was not adequate. In 1930 a series of newspaper articles exposed dissention over how the research was progressing and revealed a split within the Cancer Committee towards Chapman and his methods.

Chapman remained Director of Cancer Research for another four years. In May 1934, there was great suspicion that Chapman had been embezzling various cancer research funds. Both the Royal Society and the Australian National Research Council were pressing for an audit. Chapman, knowing he was caught, took to his rooms in the Physics Building and suicided by taking a concoction of poison. True to character to the end, the deathly mixture was reported to have included morphine, atrophine and the rarer South American arrow poison curare.

In the face of the shameful circumstances of his death, it is difficult to assess the validity of Chapman’s later work, however he should remain praised for his early efforts in public health and social advocacy, for his work establishing collaborations between industry and science.