Flecker, Hugo

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MB BS 1908 FRCS MRCS (England) LRCP (London)

Hugo Flecker was one of Australia’s pioneer radiologists and a pathfinder in the worlds of zoology and botany. The world’s most venomous creature, Chrionex fleckeri, and one of Australia’s most beautiful orchids, Dendrobium fleckeri, among other species commemorate his life and works.[1]

Hugo enrolled as a medical student at the University of Adelaide but transferred to the University of Sydney after his first year, graduating in 1908. After graduation, he served in a variety of positions in Sydney, including Demonstrator in Anatomy at the University of Sydney, Medical Officer (Honorary) to the Anti-Tuberculosis Dispensary, and Honorary Anaesthetist to the Royal Women’s Hospital. He journeyed to the United Kingdom where, in 1911, he successfully passed his LRCP (London), MRCS (England) and FRCS (Edinburgh) examinations.

Within days of the outbreak of World War I, Hugo enlisted as a Captain in the Australian Army Medical Corps. Captain (later Major) Hugo served in the Middle East and in France in a succession of units, including the Seventh Australian Light Horse (in Egypt); the No 1 Australian General Hospital at Heliopolis, where he was Surgical Registrar and treated Gallipoli casualties; the 27th Australian Infantry Battalion; the 24th Australian Infantry Battalion; the No 2 Australian General Hospital; and the No 5 Australian Training Battalion.

Hugo returned to Sydney in 1917 and commenced medical practice at Temora in New South Wales. In 1921, he moved to Melbourne and began practice as a radiologist, later to become one of Australia’s pioneer radiotherapists. Between 1921 and 1932 he held various appointments at the Homoeopathic Hospital (later Prince Henry Hospital), and at the Austin Hospital for Incurables, later to be renamed the Austin Hospital for Chronic Diseases (partly at Hugo’s instigation). He filled major service roles as the Consultant Radiologist at the Homoeopathic Hospital. In 1926 he was appointed as part-time Lecturer in Radiological Anatomy at the University of Melbourne.

Hugo practised both as a conventional radiologist and as a radiotherapist and was one of the first to use deep X-ray therapy in Australia. In radiotherapy, he published some of the earliest reports in the Australian medical literature, including a 1923 paper entitled Interim report on results of deep X-ray treatment. His 1932 report in the Journal on Some end results of deep X-ray therapy highlighted both the good and bad effects of this new treatment. Hugo himself escaped the devastating skin burns and premature neoplasms which claimed the lives of so many of his professional colleagues, although a dermatitis which commenced in 1916 was probably caused by X-ray exposure. Two of his published papers in general radiology provided important reference data points for all those practising in the specialty. His special interests in radiotherapy and his penchant for natural history drove him to look for possible sources of radioactive materials that he might use clinically. His son, Dr Patrick Flecker records:

In the early 1920s (my father) went by train from Melbourne to Copley in South Australia; and rode a camel the next seventy miles to Radium Hill, near Mt Painter, where a company called Radium and Rare Earths had a mine. They dug their ore, choosing this by means of a gold-leaf electroscope, because the Geiger counter hadn’t been though of, and sent this packed, by camel, train and ship, to somewhere in Europe for processing. The mine was made uneconomic by the discovery of pitchblende in Canada, which broke the monopoly of the Belgian Congo.
In his own practice he had his deep therapy plant, which was powered by electric current which was rectified by a mechanical rectifier. This gadget took up more space than the X-ray plant, and was most impressive to watch – better than any fireworks display.

In 1932, driven by economic necessity, Hugo journeyed to Cairns in North Queensland, where he established a new practice in radiology and radiotherapy and began his major life’s work: the discovery and description of new plants and creatures, many harmful to humankind. Separated by his children’s schooling in Melbourne, and later, by the outbreak of World War II, it was to be another 16 years before his wife and family were reunited with him. Hugo’s radiology practice in Cairns was the first specialist practice north of Townsville and one of the few north of Brisbane. Radiologists of that day acted also as dermatologists and he developed an extensive practice in North Queensland. His own chronic dermatitis made him particularly sympathetic to fellow sufferers. He took his deep X-ray therapy machine with him to Cairns; but after the establishment of the Queensland Radium Institute in 1941, with its superior equipment, Hugo’s practice concentrated on diagnostic radiology.

Upon arriving in Cairns, Hugo had established the North Queensland Naturalists’ Club and was its Foundation President for 13 years. His influence over the next 25 years was profound. However, during this time he never fused his professional interest in radiology with his passion for zoology. He developed a particular interest in sea creatures which were harmful to humans. He described the first fatal case of cone shell poisoning in Australia, in 1936, and followed this up with reports on the effects of Australian scorpions on human victims. He also wrote about the syndromes of snakebite poisoning. His practice in Cairns became known as a place where one could obtain not only a top radiological opinion, but also a reliable diagnosis and advice about the management of snake bites, jellyfish stings, scorpion stings and toxic plant ingestions. He was particularly interested in snake envenomations and published the first two reports of survival following bites by a taipan.

Hugo’s special interest in botany had an enormous influence on the documentation and study of the North Queensland flora. The North Queensland Naturalists’ Club became a vigorous and vital group, blending the enthusiasm of amateur collectors with the professionalism and meticulousness of taxonomic botanists. More than 50 new species were described during Hugo’s period as President or Vice President, and the Herbarium established by the Club came to hold many holotype and isotype specimens of orchids and other plants new to science.

Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) Flecker, Hugo. Faculty of Medicine Online Museum and Archive, University of Sydney.

An alternate version appears in: Mellor, L. 150 Years, 150 Firsts: The People of the Faculty of Medicine (2006) Sydney, Sydney University Press.