Mills, Frank Harland

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MD honoris causa 2006 FRCS FRACS

Frank H Mills performed the first local mitral valvotomy in 1951 at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney.

Frank Mills was born in 1910 in New South Wales, near Ulladulla.[1] He was brought up by his father, his mother having died whilst he and his siblings were young. He won a scholarship to Wollongong High, where he completed his secondary education and then entered the University of Sydney to study Medicine. He graduated in 1933, becoming a Junior Resident at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in 1934. At RPAH, he involved himself in Frank Rundle’s work on thyroid disease.

After travelling to London, he gained his FRCS just before the outbreak of World War II. He was called up and sent to Singapore with the 10th Australian General Hospital. There he treated everything from malaria and sexually transmitted diseased to tiger bites and war wounds. When Singapore fell, Frank was sent to Changi as a prisoner of war, until he was moved to Sandakhan in Borneo, where he continued to deliver medical and surgical services. 15 months later, he was moved to Kuching, where the conditions were “still unpleasant but there were fewer demands”. With more time to think, Frank “designed a heart-lung machine in his mind”. Upon his return to Sydney at the end of the war, he went to work straight away on developing and producing the machine in the animal laboratories of the University of Sydney. The oxygenator was made of bamboo which allowed for oxygen to permeate through tiny natural holes. However, when a like machine was developed in the United States (with the assistance of generous commercial funds) Frank abandoned the project.

Instead, he went back to work as Assistant Surgeon to Sir Hugh Poate at RPAH. He began to operate on the heart in the late 1940s. In those days at RPAH, there was no specialist cardiac ward so he was admitting patients to general beds and having to train the nurses in their post-operative care. He was awarded a Carnegie Fellowship, which enabled him to travel to the United Kingdom and the United States to work with many of the great pioneers of surgery, “people such as Lord Brock, Alfred Blacklock, Edward Churchill, Francis Moore, Hank Bahnson and Frank Spencer”.[1]

He came back to Australia with vast expertise learned from having the opportunity to interact with these founders of modern surgery. According to Miles Little:

The new-fangled and dangerous surgery was not encouraged by the administration at RPA. Undeterred by disapproval. Frank continued to perform operations for coarctation of the aorta, patent ductus and mitral stenosis. his series of mitral valvotomies was enormous by any standards, and his results were incomparably good.[1]

Frank was integral to changing the consciousness[1] of what surgical training could be like in Australia. Previously, one would have to go to London to get the experience necessary to work in Australia, but after working alongside key figures in most of the major surgical centres, Frank was determined to implement training schemes which enabled young surgeons to incrementally experience and gain skills in surgical procedures in the Australian teaching hospitals.

Frank retired in the early 1970s due to ill health. He is now 95. He has received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Sydney in 2006.

Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) 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.