Postgraduate Committee in Medicine

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In 1912 there was a meeting in the Senate Room in Phillip Street of representatives of the city hospitals and the University of Sydney, chaired by Anderson Stuart, and it was agreed that the time was ripe to institute postgraduate work in medicine. There were, however, no concrete proposals. In 1913, H. H. Schlink, Medical Superintendent of the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, had discussions with the Dean, and drew up a detailed memorandum on the objects, scope and organization of a proposed ‘Medical Postgraduate Association’. He wrote that the Faculty of Medicine was the body most suited to sponsor it. Nevertheless, at Faculty, the matter was allowed to drop. In 1919, an editorial in The Medical Journal of Australia drew attention to the failure of the 1913 proposal and emphasized the need for postgraduate training of practitioners returning from the War.

It was not until 1929 that the N.S.W. Branch of the B.M.A. formed a Standing Committee for the organization of postgraduate work and a number of courses were given. In 1932, this Standing Committee of the B.M.A. became the autonomous N.S.W. Permanent Postgraduate Committee, consisting of representatives of the B.M.A., the University of Sydney, and the main metropolitan hospitals. V. M. Coppleson became the Honorary Secretary and the Committee became very active in arranging courses in the city and in extending the country courses. It also considered instituting teaching for higher medical qualifications.

The Committee approached the Senate of the University of Sydney seeking closer cooperation and, in 1935, Senate adopted a new by-law establishing the N.S.W. Postgraduate Committee in Medicine, which took over the functions and the assets of its progenitor. Victor Coppleson was already a driving force and, in 1936, the N.S.W. Parliament established the Prince Henry Hospital as a Postgraduate School of Medicine, organized by the Postgraduate Committee, which established an office there. S. A. Smith and Sir Hugh Poate were appointed the first Directors of Medicine and Surgery, respectively, but the advent of World War II interrupted this project.

Between 1944 and 1947 the Committee moved its office from the Royal Australasian College of Physicians building to 131 Macquarie Street. Coppleson became the Honorary Director of Postgraduate Medical Studies and Selwyn G. Nelson joined the Committee. During this time many correspondence courses were conducted for returned practitioners. In 1960 the Committee moved from Macquarie Street to Herford House (owned by the Benevolent Society), in the grounds of the Royal Hospital for Women, Paddington. Then, in 1965, it moved to Lucas Street, Camperdown, into buildings owned by Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. Finally, it moved to its present campus site in the Coppleson Institute, in 1977, fulfilling Coppleson’s dearest wish but, unhappily, after his death. In 1980 the Postgraduate Committee in Medicine became a Faculty of Medicine Subcommittee and the Dean ex officio its Chairman.

An Australian Postgraduate Federation in Medicine was formed in 1948, largely as a result of Victor Coppleson’s efforts; he was Honorary Secretary and became President in 1960. Memoranda and Articles were prepared in Sydney by the Committee and, in 1962, the Federation was incorporated in Canberra with representation of all postgraduate organizations, all national medical bodies, the Royal Colleges and other appropriate bodies.

The Postgraduate Medical Foundation was established by Senate in 1958 after several years of planning, and a formal launching took place in the Great Hall in 1959 in the presence of the Governor of N.S.W. and the Chancellor. The President was Sir Frank Packer and the Chairman, Mr L. W. Farnsworth. Its object was ‘… to assist the Postgraduate Committee in promoting education and research in every possible way …’. Sir Robert Crighton Brown is now President and the Foundation makes about $250,000 available for research each year. The Postgraduate Committee, through its Research Committee, administers these funds and makes grants, especially fellowships, after advertisement.

The Victor Coppleson Institute of Postgraduate Medical Studies, funded by donations after Sir Victor Coppleson’s death in 1965, was inaugurated in the Great Hall of the University in 1971 and the building bearing the Institute’s name was opened in 1977.

The primary object of the Committee has been, in the words of the Chairman and Director, Coppleson (1957) ‘… to assist the practising doctor in the diagnosis, management and treatment of his patients by the most modern and scientific methods …’ and, for more than fifty years, a most successful revision course has been conducted annually. This is usually opened by the Chancellor. Other activities have included city and country courses for general practitioners, the provision of audio-visual material, courses on advanced medicine for those seeking higher qualifications, and the organization of conferences and symposia on a wide variety of topics, commonly on postgraduate training and education. For many years the Committee was responsible for the organization and conduct of courses for University Diplomas which included the Diplomas of Dermatological Medicine, Psychological Medicine, Ophthalmology, Anaesthesia, Gynaecology and Obstetrics, and Radiology. Courses for Part I of the FRACS and FRACR in the basic sciences are still organized by the Committee. Its journal (the Bulletin of the Postgraduate Committee in Medicine of the University of Sydney) has been published for nearly fifty years. Close relations are maintained with other postgraduate committees in N.S.W. and in other States.

Sir Victor Coppleson MB ChM FRCS FRACS FACS was born in Wee Waa, N.S.W., graduated from Sydney 1915 and then served in New Guinea, Egypt and France in the First World War. He obtained his FRCS in 1921 and became Honorary Surgeon at St Vincent’s and the Royal North Shore Hospitals. He was one time Curator of the Anatomy Museum, Demonstrator in Anatomy and Lecturer in Surgery, and was the author of several medical and other texts — his book Shark Attack (1958) is perhaps most widely known. He put enormous effort into all phases of the Postgraduate Committee’s work and the chronicle set out here can be attributed primarily to his vision and to his efforts to get things done. He accomplished much in his thirty-two years as Honorary Secretary, Director and Chairman. For many years his right hand was Selwyn G. Nelson OBE KtStJ BSc MB BS FRACP FRCPEd FRCM, who not only worked closely with Coppleson from 1944, serving as Honorary Secretary and Honorary Assistant Director, but also most ably took over as Honorary Director in 1965, remaining in that post until 1975, and as Chairman until 1980. He has a wide range of activities outside of his profession — he is a Commissioner of the Priory of St John, a Knight of the Order of St John of Jerusalem and a member of the Order’s N.S.W. Executive.

The Postgraduate Committee in the University of Sydney has played the leading role in continuing education in Australia through Sir Victor Coppleson’s vision and drive. Its unique University attachment from its very early days placed it in a position where it could achieve more than its counterparts elsewhere, particularly since its subcommittees have always been dominated by people representing wide interests in the medical community, both academic and professional.

Source: C. R. B. Blackburn, "Postgraduate Committee in Medicine" (1984) in Young J, Sefton A and Webb N, Centenary Book of the University of Sydney Faculty of Medicine. Sydney University Press, Sydney