Schlink, Herbert Henry

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Herbert Schlink founded the King George V Hospital Memorial Hospital for Mothers and Babies in 1958. As a gynaecologist, Herbert pioneered the use of cobalt ray therapy in treating pelvic cancer and instigated the systematic follow-up of cancer patients. He is also considered to be the “father of Australian skiing”.[1]

Herbert was born in Germany but migrated to Australia in 1858 to settle in the Albury district with his family. His interest in books and in history influenced him first to enter the Faculty of Arts at the University of Sydney, but after one year he transferred to medicine and graduated in 1907. He joined the staff of the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital (RPAH) as a Junior Resident Medical Officer in 1907, and beginning a life of devoted service to this institution which lasted no less than 55 years. Within three years Herbert was appointed Medical Superintendent, reorganising many of the services of the Hospital and instituting a new records system. In 1913, he applied for the post of Honorary Junior Gynaecological Surgeon. His application was successful, and he commenced practice as a gynaecologist and obstetrician in Macquarie Street. Herbert became a captain in the Australian Army Medical Corps whilst a Senior Resident Medical Officer. By 1914, he was adjutant to the Principal Medical Officer in New South Wales and, at the outbreak of hostilities in 1914, took charge of the medical arrangements at the recruit reception camps at Liverpool and Holsworthy. He later acted as Medical Officer to the University Rifles.

In 1922 Herbert became Honorary Gynaecological Surgeon to the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he had not sought a similar post in other hospitals, always believing in the principle of “one man – one hospital” as the best for the individual and for the institution. Soon after his appointment, he travelled to Europe, where he made first contact with most of the famous gynaecologists of those days in England and in Europe, beginning lifelong friendships with many. After his return to Australia, he lectured and wrote extensively on numerous aspects of gynaecological surgery, including the description of a new instrument of enucleation of the cervix.

In 1925 he was elected a Director of the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital becoming Vice-Chairman of the Board of Management seven years later. In 1934, he became Chairman, an office he continued to hold for 28 years. It was in this capacity that his extraordinary powers of vision, tenacity and persuasion, ably assisted by the Board, transformed the Hospital from a small unit of some 600 beds to a great city hospital of over 1400 beds. These additions were effected during a period of diminishing private support, a World War, and increasing competition for government funds. His fame as a hospital planner and administrator was soon recognised overseas, and he was elected Honorary Member of the American Hospitals Association and as a representative for Australia on the International Hospitals Federation. All benefited directly from his advice, and from membership of the Australian Hospital Associate, which he founded in 1945, and of whose journal, The Australian Modern Hospital, he was the first editor. Herbert was largely responsible for establishing the claim of teaching hospitals to special funds for student education, and was a member of the University Grants commission of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1959.

In 1929 Henry was one of the founders of the RPAH Medical Officers Association, a union of past and present resident medical officers, for the purpose of holding an annual reunion for mutual instruction and fellowship. He was its first President, and interested the late William McIlrath in providing the funds for a visiting professor to be invited annually to lecture and to work in the wards.

In his own speciality, Henry contributed most to the treatment of pelvic cancer, its early detection and radical surgical extirpation. He systematically followed up all such patients and produced as complete and searching statistics on this subject as any in the world. The West Cancer Detection Clinic at the King George V Hospital continues this interest. He was a great stimulus and help to younger men and persuaded the late J Foreman and F N Chenhall to bequeath their legacies for training fellowships in gynaecology. Herbert was Foundation Fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons and a lecturer in gynaecology of the University of Sydney, and in 1951 was elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. In 1939, he published his Text Book of Gynaecology, later revised in collaboration with other members of the King George V Hospital staff.

Ever interested in the general welfare and independence of the medical profession and in community health as a whole, Herbert more recently assisted his old friend, the late Sir Earle Page, in the development of the National Medical Benefits Scheme, the Page Plan, and was both a Foundation Councillor of the Hospitals Contribution Fund of New South Wales and of the Medical Benefits Fund of Australia Limited. Realising the necessity for coordination of the many benefit schemes in existence throughout Australia, he supported and became first President of the Australian Blue Cross. Herbert concluded his speech on Sir Alfred Roberts, another great builder of hospitals, at the Annual Post-Graduate Oration of 1956, with the following words:

Let us… never forget that in the vigour of its free institutions lies Australia’s great strength and hope for the future. To do his part towards keeping them strong, to have a part in making them even stronger, is the responsibility, indeed the privilege, of every free man and woman.

Herbert has justly been named “the father of Australian skiing”. The challenge of the Australian Alps, an unknown and hazardous terrain 50 years ago, appealed to his determined and courageous character. As soon as his medical course was completed, he began to spend his annual holidays at Kosciusko and, with primitive equipment, to explore the roof of New South Wales. Accompanied by Oscar Paul and Hans Fay, he took Lord Denman to Betts Camp in an attempt to guide the Governor-General to the summit of Mt Kosciusko. Unfortunately, bad weather intervened and the party was forced to return. Herbert came to know the New South Wales side of the Alps intimately, and with Eric Fisher, Lennox Teece, Oscar Paul and others climbed peak after peak. Self-taught, and in spite of several fractures, he scaled these mountains by sheer determination without preliminary training or the aid of the smooth skiing techniques of today.

Along with Eric Fisher, William Gordon, W Hughes and the late John Laidley, he made the first crossing from Kiandra to Kosciusko in the winter of 1927, a journey of great danger and hardship at that time. He was directly responsible for the building of the first chalet at Charlotte Pass and one of the founders and subsequently President of the Kosciusko Alpine Club (1902 to 1920). In 1921, he formed the Ski Club of Australia, becoming its President for 40 years. He also became a member of the Ski Club of Great Britain in 1910, and Honorary Member of the Kandahar Ski Club and of the Swiss Universities Ski Club. He was patron of the University of Sydney Ski Club until his death. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Mountain Society in recognition of his activities; and the Snowy Mountain Authority and Sir William Hudson expressed their gratitude for Sir Herbert’s advice and practical assistance at the outset of their project, by naming the road from Guthega beyond Mt Tait to Geehi, ‘Schlink Pass’.

In 1954, Herbert was created Knight Bachelor for his public services and his service to medicine. He had already received the Silver Jubilee Medal from his Majesty King George V, and the Coronation Medals of 1937 and 1953. Members of the Royal Family had attended “his hospital” as visitors and even as patients, and important buildings had been named in their honour.

Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) Schlink, Herbert Henry. 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.