After inviting applications from across Australasia, the United Kingdom and the United States, it was a local boy – born in Hampton, the grandson of a pioneering pastoralist, educated at Scotch College and Melbourne University – who got the job as director of the fledgling Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Research in Pathology and Medicine.
Dr Sydney Wentworth Patterson was unanimously nominated and confirmed for the appointment by the board of the institute and the trustees of the Walter and Eliza Hall Trust Fund, according to a report in The Argus newspaper on 16 June 1919.
Although the institute had been in existence for four years, the Great War had stymied its development. The post of director had been held by the University of Melbourne’s Dean of Medicine, Sir Harry Allen, in an acting capacity until the end of the conflict. Allen, who had played a pivotal role in conceiving and establishing the institute, had stepped in after the original director designate, Dr Gordon Clunes Mathison, was killed at Gallipoli in April 1915.
Patterson began his medical career in general practice in Victoria’s western district, riding 20 miles on horseback to see patients, never knowing what situation he might encounter.
Like Mathison, he travelled to London on a research fellowship and, like him, enlisted when war broke out. He joined the Royal Army Medical Corps, rising to the rank of major and serving as a pathologist in the Rouen area of France. Also like Mathison, he was recommended to head the institute by Allen, who’d observed both young men as students.
Patterson returned to Melbourne to take up the post in early 1920.
One of his appointments was a first-year registrar, Dr Frank Macfarlane Burnet, whose 42-year association with the institute began in 1923 when he acted as pathology registrar “and taught myself clinical pathology, with some guidance from Patterson”, as he later recalled in his history of the institute.1
Burnet observed that when Patterson died in London in 1960, the obituaries focused on his distinctions as a physician and gastroenterologist in the UK, barely making mention of his time at the Hall Institute. It was likely Patterson had little influence on its subsequent development, Burnet mused, “but (his) three years were at a very interesting time in the medical history of Australia and provide a foretaste of the difficulties [Charles] Kellaway [his successor] had to meet and overcome”.
While Patterson had had an impressive early career in physiology research the war had interrupted and by the time he joined the institute he was 38, had been out of the laboratory for many years, and his interests and skills had shifted to clinical work.
He urged close cooperation between clinicians at the Melbourne Hospital and his laboratory team, taking a dual role as a physician and lobbying for the institute to establish a clinical research ward – an ambition that would be realised decades later.
Patterson didn’t pursue the research that had underwritten his nomination for the directorship, perhaps dissuaded in part by the realisation that the Hall Trust was not going to progressively increase its support.
“Perhaps it is best to look at Patterson’s brief regime in terms of the period, the era of reorganisation after the war,” Burnet argues. It was a messy time, with many young graduates being discharged from the military with little experience of practice or academic work in civilian conditions.
The Hall Institute provided a haven for them to re-establish themselves, passing through en route to practice as physicians and surgeons.
Meanwhile the institute’s research ambitions drifted, as Patterson did himself, “when the offer of a congenial post overseas arrived in early 1923”, as Burnet wrote.
Burnet recalls crossing paths with Patterson in 1959 at a medical conference. “He told me he had watched the development of the institute from afar with pleasure.” He had also, by then, returned to laboratory research and “was actively enjoying it”.
After his death in London 1960, age 78, Patterson was remembered in his obituary in the British Medical Journal as “slightly reserved on first meeting, he was a most kindly personality and always prepared to give of his utmost in medical knowledge and time to help with patients and relatives”.
1 Walter And Eliza Hall Institute, 1915-1965, by Macfarlane Burnet, Melbourne University Press, 1971.