Claffy, Francis Patrick

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MB BS 1933 Francis (Frank) Claffy was the first Director of the Department of Ophthalmology and Eye Health at the Sydney Eye Hospital when it was established in 1964. In this position, he facilitated the implementation of three specialist units within Ophthalmology.

After graduating with honours in 1933, Frank served his internship at both Sydney Hospital and the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children. The following year he took up an appointment at the Sydney Eye Hospital and began the field of work that was to remain his life-long interest. After a course of study at Moorefield’s Hospital in London, he obtained his Diploma of Ophthalmology and returned to Australia to work in private practice in Bathurst, NSW.

At the outbreak of World War II, Frank was commissioned as Major in 2/10th Australian General Hospital and was posted to Malaya with the 22nd Brigade AIF. In 1942, his unit was captured by the Japanese and he became a prisoner of war for the next 43 months. His professional work with prisoners is reported to be “legendary” for the long hours he worked “examining and recording the ocular lesions resulting from avitaminosis and general malnutrition”. Like many others in similar situations, he had the difficult task of making the scant remedial provisions available to those most in need. During his time of internment, he wrote a thesis on the effects of nutritional diseases on the eye which was later published.[1]

After his discharge from the Army, he was re-employed at the Sydney Eye Hospital and quickly re-established himself within the institution. According to an account of Ophthalmology in the hospital at the time, “his clinical knowledge and experience were extensive and his opinion was frequently sought by other consultants”. Frank was fully committed to the interests of the Hospital as a teaching centre and was the first Director of the Department of Clinical Ophthalmology and Eye Health at the University of Sydney. When he was appointed in 1964, he was granted three part-time lecturers. With Frank’s encouragement, three sub-specialties were developed within the Department, Donaldson establishing the Retinal Unit with fluorescein angiography and photocoagulation for investigation and treatment of retinal diseases; Rogers developing the Orbito-plastic Unit; and Cowle researching glaucoma.[1]

At the time of Frank’s retirement in 1974, he was Director and Chairman of the Ophthalmological staff. According to his colleague K Fagen:

He earned the respect of his colleagues for his conservative and meticulous surgery and for his opinions, which were based upon wide experience and profound knowledge… It was his idea to sponsor special interests within ophthalmology and it was through his selfless, untiring persistence that the retinal, corneal and plastic clinics came into function at the Eye Hospital.[1]

Frank was a man with an insatiable thirst for knowledge. In addition to his work with the Hospital and University, he studied law during the 1970s, being admitted as a Barrister in 1974, and obtaining two further postgraduate legal diplomas soon after. Colleague Frank Billson acknowledges Frank’s legacy:

In 1960, the sum of $100,000 was given to establish a Chair in Ophthalmology in the University of Sydney. Claffy was one of those most instrumental in convincing the University of the need for a Chair in Ophthalmology and Eye Health, and his material contributions to the Claffy Foundation still provide essential support in the research programs being carried out in the Department. In 1977, [he] was appointed as Foundation Professor of Clinical Ophthalmology.[1]

On his death in 1979, Frank left a considerable bequest to both the Society of St Vincent de Paul and the Department of Eye Health Research at the University of Sydney.

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Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) Claffy, Francis Patrick. 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.