Loewenthal, Sir John

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John Loewenthal has been credited with the successful building and development of the Department of Surgery at the University of Sydney. In 1960, he was one of the founding members of the National Heart Foundation of Australia, of which he became national President in 1975.

John was born in Sydney in 1914. He enrolled in Medicine and graduated with the Clayton and F Norton Manning prize for clinical medicine and psychiatry in 1938. During his internship as Resident Medical Officer of the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, John served as House Surgeon to Hugh Poate and House Physician for Charles McDonald. The following year, he became Senior Resident Pathologist and then briefly held a fellowship at Prince Henry Hospital before being called up for service in the Australian Army Medical Corps in 1940. He was posted to the 2nd/9th Field Regiment and served in Palestine, Syria and Egypt until he was hospitalised with malaria induced jaundice. In 1942, he joined the 2nd/1st Casualty Clearing Station and was posted in Milne Bay, Papua. Again, he contracted malaria and was sent back to Australia in 1943 for treatment. When he had recovered sufficiently to return to work, he was transferred to the Australian General Hospital in Heidelberg, Melbourne, where he performed general, urological and orthopaedic surgery. During his time there, he carried out research into the clinical use of the newly discovered penicillin. In October 1945 he was posted to the Military Hospital in Concord, where he remained until his appointment with the AIF terminated at the end of 1945.

John then went to London on a Nuffield Fellowship, taking a role as Chief Assistant at Bartholomew’s Hospital. In 1947, he began his teaching career as Lecturer in Surgery at the Victoria University in Manchester, and as Deputy-Director of the surgical professorial unit at the Manchester Royal Infirmary. In 1948, he returned to the University of Sydney to take up a position of Tutor within the Faculty. At the same time, he began private practice. A year later, he also took on the role of Honorary Assistant Surgeon at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.1 In 1956, he became Bosch Professor of Surgery in the Faculty and is credited for building the Department from a “almost non-existent department” into “a true Department with a world-wide reputation” as the following excerpt illustrates:

He inherited an office, a secretary, a technical officer and a single scientific officer, Adolf Bolliger, who was at the time studying the keratin structure of marsupial hair. Using his forceful personality, political adroitness and visionary determination, Loewenthal built a Department with branches in all the Teaching Hospitals and with a team of men whose clinical and laboratory output covered a remarkably wide span of academic surgery.

John’s first task was to secure University backing so that he would no longer be the sole clinical academic. Gerald Milton, Douglas McKenzie and Peter Halliday became his first appointees at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. They helped with the clinical and teaching load and began to make use of the splendid animal laboratories in the Medical School. Soon they were producing papers and collaborating in their research with medical and surgical colleagues. John’s clinical following ensured that his ward and staff would be busy. The schism between town and gown began to disappear. John turned to the other teaching hospitals in which the situation was less satisfactory, with no full-time University presence. He secured permission to appoint full-time academics at St Vincent’s Hospital (before its transfer to the University of New South Wales), at Royal North Shore, and later at Sydney Hospital and Concord Repatriation Hospital. John had an extraordinary capacity to pick appropriate men for these jobs, and the Sub-Departments flourished. He also had the generosity and confidence to confer independence. Each hospital Sub-Department, therefore, developed its own pattern. Chairs in general surgery were created at the hospitals, as were additional Chairs in specialised fields. The proliferation of people brought a corresponding proliferation of activity.

On campus itself, John laboured to improve the teaching of surgery and the facilities for research, and the Gordon Craig Research Laboratory subsequently broadened the thrust of its research. John was also concerned with the development of Radiology, since he saw clearly how much the practising surgeon depended on the clinical radiologist. It is again testimony to his broad vision that he allocated money from his Departmental funds to set up a Senior Lectureship in Radiology within the Department of Surgery, since there was no other way to establish an academic presence in radiology. [1]

The Medical School has a century of history behind it; the Department of Surgery has existed for only about half of that time… It is only since 1956 that the unfettered development of a true Department can be traced… The Department of Surgery, like the rest of the University, can look at its record with pride. Its future will depend on the continued collaborative efforts of intelligent and motivated individuals enjoying, in one of John’s favourite phrases, ‘the unearned increment of association’ that is the strength and source of excellence in any University Department.[1]

In 1955, John was elected a fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, he was a Councilor from 1961 to 1974, and held the position of President from 1971 to 1974. In 1960, he was one of the founders of the National Heart Foundation of Australia and its national President from 1975 to 1979. He was also a member of the Cancer Council of New South Wales, the National Health and Medical Research Council, and the Vice-Chairman of the Ludwig Institute of Cancer Research. He also served on the Boards of the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children and the Royal North Shore Hospital.[1]

In 1975, he was appointed CMG and in 1978, was knighted for his “services to health”.

Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) Loewenthal, Sir John. Faculty of Medicine Online Museum and Archive, University of Sydney.

An alternate version appears in: Young, J A, Sefton, A J, Webb, N. Centenary Book of the University of Sydney Faculty of Medicine, (1984) Sydney University Press for The University of Sydney Faculty of Medicine.