Frank Harland Mills AO 1910 - 2008

Frank Mills

On the morning of April 6, 2008, there died a man of modesty and achievement, one who had lived joyfully and generously. He had been ill for a long time, and by his own choice had slipped from public notice. His surgical influence, survival skills and pleasure in life are worth remembering. The things he did made many Australians deeply grateful, for he was uncommonly adroit at salvaging people’s lives.

Frank Harland Mills was born in 1910, and he grew up on the South coast of New South Wales, mostly round Ulladulla. His father was a local magistrate, who raised Frank, his brother Roy, his sister Joyce and an older sister who was killed in a car crash at the age of 18, because their mother died while they were young. Frank described his childhood as idyllic, free and full of adventure. He claimed never to have worn shoes until he went to school. He fished and swam, climbed trees, shot rabbits, ate shellfish and played with the local children. He won a scholarship to Wollongong High and went on to the University of Sydney to study medicine. At Sydney, he entered St Andrew’s College. He said that he became a Presbyterian so that he could enter the College, because he was impressed by ‘its beautiful paintings, photographs, stairs, great big dining room, looking like the House of Commons’.

Frank was an outstanding student. He graduated in 1933, and was a Junior Resident at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital (RPA) in 1934. In those days, its medical administration consisted of a Secretary and Assistant Secretary, a Treasurer and Assistant Treasurer, and a Records Officer and her assistant – ‘quite enough to run a hospital efficiently,’ he insisted. The resident staff ‘were treated like kings. The food was absolutely superb…we worked quite late at those times and our food was always kept hot for us…the supper would be lobsters and oysters and everything like this’. The wages were low – ‘you were paid 30/- a week’.

He became involved with Frank Rundle’s work on thyroid disease, work which he developed further when he went to London on a Walter and Eliza Hall Travelling Fellowship to gain his Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons. Just before the outbreak of World War II, he delivered a Hunterian lecture on thyroid disease to the Royal College in London. He returned to Sydney just as the war began, and was appointed an Assistant Surgeon at RPA and St Vincent’s, until he was called up, and sailed in the Queen Mary (via Antarctica) to Singapore with the 10th Australian General Hospital. There he treated everything from malaria and sexually transmitted diseases to tiger bites and war wounds.

When Singapore was invaded by the Japanese, Frank set up a small hospital in two or three houses with large rooms. He looked after about 250 wounded soldiers under harrowing conditions, with the fighting at times about 300 metres away. He had little equipment, few supplies, and the bombardment was almost continuous. His own words give some idea of the insanity and chaos of that dreadful week:

I had been operating for about 48 hours and I came out at about eight in the morning, and I staggered out onto the veranda of this house which faced north towards where the Japanese were, went down 2 or 3 steps and we had an air raid shelter that the people had built themselves, and they were putting the very worst cases downs there, and on the front lawn there was a little red cross about as big as this (indicating), not a very big one. I was tired out. I saw an aeroplane about 2 or 300 yards away, very low, coming sideways and he saw me and like a flash turned and came towards me, but he was too low, he couldn’t get his nose down [to machine-gun me]… He had two 150 pound bombs, and just as he let them go he saw the red cross and he flicked the nose of the ‘plane up and they flew right over the top. They missed the house by 20 feet…He wobbled his wings in salute, and flew off.

And these words capture what it was like to be compassionate under such awful circumstances:

The worst thing that happened, we had all these casualties and it was a matter of going around and saying "These people can wait, this one is hopeless and will die, perhaps we will bring these few." To look on faces of people whom you rejected. It is the saddest thing…

When Singapore fell on 15th February 1942, Frank was sent to Changi, where again he delivered medical and surgical services until June, when the imprisoned troops were divided into A and B Forces. A Force was sent to Thailand, and B Force to Sandakan in Borneo. There, the prisoners built a large air base under terrible conditions – an air base that was never used, and was destroyed by American bombing towards the end of the war.

Treating illness in Sandakan required ingenuity, courage and stamina from both patients and doctors. Supplies had to be improvised, grown or stolen. Peptic ulcers were treated with emulsions made of the alkaline ash from fires. Tropical ulcers on the legs were patiently cleaned and dressed with a strong solution of wood ash. Amputations were rare in Sandakan, although common in other camps.

Frank was appointed as Medical Officer to the escape group at Sandakan. When its organiser, Captain Matthews, was taken and tortured by the Japa-nese, the rest of the escape group feared that they too would be arrested and tortured. He told me how this preyed on his mind until, in his own words:

I sewed cocaine tablets in the epaulet of my shirt, where I could reach them with my teeth…just in case I was tortured. I thought it was a lethal dose of cocaine. When I thought that one up I was completely relieved.

After about 15 months in Sandakan, in October 1943, the officers were taken from the camp and moved to Kuching, perhaps to forestall an attempted break-out. Most of the Kuching prisoners were still alive at the end of the war nearly two years later, whereas only 6 of the 2000 Sandakan prisoners survived the infamous Sandakan death march between February and June of 1945. Luck may have played a large part in the fate of the Kuching survivors. To quote Frank again:

They had a Kuching death march organised. We got a very serious bout of dysentery just at the time that they were going to take us, and the Japanese were scared of dysentery, so they postponed the march for a couple of months and in the meantime the atomic bomb fell.

Kuching was unpleasant, but there were fewer demands, and Frank had more time to think. He occupied himself by designing a heart-lung machine in his mind – a project that he was to work on when he returned to Sydney and civilian life. The oxygenator of his device was a bamboo tube, whose tiny natural holes allowed oxygen to permeate the blood in the machine. The work of Gibbon in the US progressed more rapidly, largely because it had been very generously funded by General Motors, and Frank abandoned his work without bitterness before all the technical problems were resolved.

The inmates of Kuching learnt of the atomic bomb by way of a stray leaflet dropped by a US ‘plane, and salvaged by Frank’s friend Marcus Clark. Frank read the leaflet with incredulity:

And here I saw the atomic bomb, how it had fallen at Hiroshima, and I thought "God, we are like Rip Van Winkle, we just don’t know what is happening in the world”, and just at that time a runner came through from the men's camp which was about a mile away, saying "I have a radio and the war is over", and a man called Montgomery came back just before dawn saying "Yes, I think it’s over, but I couldn’t quite hear".

Frank and his colleagues were liberated by his friend Neville Morgan, who became an orthopaedic surgeon at RPA. At liberation, he weighed just six stone (about 38 kilograms). By various stages, he wangled a lift in a flying boat back to Australia, first to Bowen in Queensland, then to Sydney:

The flying boat couldn’t land at Rose Bay because it was occupied by other ‘planes, and it started to circle Sydney right out round Botany Bay, back up round the coast there, the Gap and into Sydney Harbour, right near the Bridge and we did that about five times. It was the most beautiful afternoon at about 3 or 4 o'clock, and here was a whole group waiting for me, to welcome a prisoner of war home. People were clapping of course. Anyhow, we were admitted to Concord Hospital and that night I had an invitation from George Stening, "Please join us for dinner", the whole thing was done so correctly, we had a most beautiful dinner, I was welcomed back to the mess. The thing that struck me was, I couldn’t believe it, how witty people were. You know, we had been put on our own resources for years, and all the little things that people say to each other, the digs they have at each other, seemed to me to be unbelievably witty. I thought "I wonder can I ever join this society?"

He did in fact join that society. He went back to work as a surgeon, perhaps too early, but effectively. He gained his Fellowship of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons in 1947. Sir Hugh Poate asked him to become his assistant, and expanded Frank’s interest in thyroid surgery. A Carnegie Fellowship allowed him to visit most of the major surgical centres in the US and the UK, and he came to know many of the surgeons who founded modern surgery – people such as Lord Brock, Alfred Blalock, Edward Churchill, Francis Moore, Hank Bahnson and Frank Spencer. These men were particularly influential in starting cardiac surgery, and Frank too began to operate on the heart and great blood vessels in the late 1940s. This 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.

His own health suffered. He developed a severely symptomatic and resistant peptic ulcer, and underwent surgery that nearly killed him, but cured his ulcer. He returned to work undiminished, and over the ensuing years pioneered peripheral vascular surgery, and surgery of the liver and the pancreas in Sydney. More than anything, he brought something special to surgical training. He had seen how Blalock, Churchill and Francis Moore had implemented training schemes that encouraged the best trainees to develop skills as surgeons and investigators. Frank worked hard to bring the same environment to Australia, to nurture talent and stimulate inquiry. The current training scheme of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons owes more to him than is generally realised.

Frank married Elayne Smith in October 1960. They had a daughter Corinna and a son Jonathan.

Frank was technically as gifted a surgeon as I have ever seen anywhere in the world. He had, to use his own word, an amazing ‘repertoire’ to call upon. He was superb in the head and neck, in the thorax and the abdomen, and he operated on any part of the arterial tree with supreme assurance. His practice was large and varied. He was at his very best in apparently hopeless situations, when he liked his young protegées around him to assist, encourage, understand and – sometimes – interpret him. Bill Shaw, his anaesthetist for many years, used to grumble about the difficulty of Frank’s cases, but always swore that no one equalled Frank ‘when the chips were down.’ In his great days as a surgeon, he often seemed to struggle to find words to explain himself and his ideas, particularly in public. In private, however, he showed another side that had warmth, wit and insight, together with a penetrating judgement of the real value of his colleagues. He had a capacity for mirth I have rarely seen equalled.

Frank himself developed cancer in the early 1970s. He entrusted his care to one of his former trainees, and consequently took all credit for the fact that he survived for 37 years after the surgery. His survival meant that he enjoyed the company and support of his wife Elayne, and was able to see Jonathan and Corinna make their own lives. He watched with particular pride as Jonathan moved from strength to strength as a composer and director of artistic festivals, to his current position as Director of the Edinburgh Festival. He was particularly moved by Jonathan’s now famous Sandakan Threnody, a major composition reflecting on the cruelty and courage that made up the ordeal of the prison camp. With it, Jonathan won the Prix Italia in 2005.

Frank retired from practice when he recovered from his surgery, and travelled, entertained innumerable friends of all ages, swam daily at Bondi, ate well, and drank wine with discretion and expertise – both he and Elayne were members of the Confrerie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, and Frank was one of the eleven founders of the Rothbury Estate in the Hunter valley. His longevity (he was 98 when he died) he ascribed to his regular contact with bacteria from the Bondi sewage (until the long ocean outfall was installed about 1990), which he believed developed a range of skills for his immune system, making him resistant to chance infection.

He was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1990 for his services to medicine, and the University of Sydney conferred on him a Doctorate of Medicine (honoris causa) in 2005.

He characterised himself as ‘a survivor’, but he was much more than that. He was an institution, a national treasure who lived through experiences that most of us cannot even imagine, who used his intelligence and his dexterity in ways that we can only be grateful for, brought joy in life that was contagious to those who knew him, and viewed his experiences and achievements with modesty and pleasure. At his 90th birthday party, he said in his speech that ‘each decade has been better than the one before.’ It was a sentence that summarised the remarkable, admirable and creative life of someone who had seen much, understood much and done great good.

Elayne survives Frank, as do Corinna and Jonathan. We share their sadness, but also the gladness they must feel for his long life. Above all, I am grateful to have known Frank for almost 50 years, to have learnt from him, to have argued with him over his political views, to have laughed with him, and to have wondered at him. He once set aside time to talk to me and a research team about the extreme experiences of his life, the imprisonment in Sandakan and the bowel cancer that threatened to cut short his marriage and his involvement in his children’s growing up. He talked for hours, and we recorded and transcribed what he said – his words quoted in this obituary come from that transcript. We all thought it an incomparable privilege, because it gave us unique insight into the time of ferment and disorder that turned into our time. It gave us just a little appreciation of the ways in which a great man may make unexpected order from the random, often unkind, happenings that make up cultures, contexts and lives.

Miles Little
Wednesday, 06 August 2008

Jonathan and Elayne Mills have generously shared their memories with me. I have drawn heavily on an extended interview with Frank about his life and extreme experiences, and on many conversations with him, and I have checked some details about the war years with other texts (particularly R W Newton and others, The Grim Glory of the 2/19 Battalion AIF, 1975, Sydney; Thompson, P., The Battle for Singapore: The True Story of the Greatest Catastrophe of World War Two, 2005, London; Cunningham, M., Defying the Odds: Surviving Sandakan and Kuching, 2006, Melbourne). I take responsibility for any remaining errors of fact or interpretation.