Heydon, George Aloysius Makinson

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George Heydon was the first true medical parasitologist in Australia. He transferred from the Australian Institute of Tropical Medicine (AITM) in Townsville when the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine opened at the University in 1930. Perhaps the most significant of his many contributions to parasitology was the demonstration of the role played by Anopheles punctulatus as the major vector of malaria in Rabaul. Aside from his medical contributions, George was a pioneer of gliding as a sport in Australia, being the first in the country to tow a glider into the air by means of a powered aircraft.[1]

George Aloysius Makinson Heydon was born in Sydney in 1881. After schooling in Sydney and in England, he obtained a BA from Cambridge in 1903 and medical qualifications from the University of Sydney in 1908. He had intended to follow a career in ophthalmology but the outbreak of World War I determined his immediate future and, ultimately, his life’s work. He served with the Australian Army Medical Corps at Gallipoli and in France, where he was Regimental Medical officer of the 8th Battalion, achieved the rank of Major and was awarded the Military Cross. Before leaving Europe, George obtained diplomas of Public Health and Tropical Medicine and Hygiene from the University of Cambridge.

On returning to Australia, he joined the laboratory services of the Commonwealth Department of Health and was appointed to Rabaul, in the former German Territory of New Guinea, to establish a health laboratory. This position provided opportunities for research in parasitology that George seized enthusiastically, his most significant contribution being the demonstration, through dissection and breeding experiments, that Anopheles punctulatus was the major vector of malaria in Rabaul. This placed malaria control in Rabaul on a firm footing and later proved to have general application in Melanesia. In 1925, George moved from New Guinea to the AITM in Townsville where he taught parasitology in the Department of Tropical Medicine and carried out field surveys for malaria and filariasis in northern Queensland. Whilst in Townsville, he also studied the microfilariae of Onchocerca gibsoni in the skin of cattle and the infective larvae of human hookworms.

When the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine (SPHTM) opened at the University of Sydney in 1930, George transferred to work in our Faculty, his extensive experience in parasitology made him well suited to its needs. He began working with another colleague and rapidly developed an effective team in Sydney, teaching, researching a variety of issues in parasitology and providing a specialist diagnostic service for medical practitioners. From the very first week, a close relationship with Taronga Zoo was formed. Examination of the daily records kept in the section reveals that a regular activity was review of post-mortem material from zoo animals for parasites. In fact, there were so many post-mortems that the impression could easily be gained that Taronga Zoo was a decidedly unhealthy place to be if you were not human. Records of examination of blood or faecal samples from humans are interspersed with details of dissections of orang-utans, giraffes and pythons.

George’s interest in Australian malaria vectors continued in Sydney and collections of a local species, Anopheles annulipes, were made from various localities within the Sydney suburbs. Mosquitoes raised to maturity in the laboratory were fed on individuals infected with Plasmodium vivax. One of these was F H Taylor, the school entomologist, who had been working in New Guinea. It is uncertain from the laboratory records whether any mosquitoes became infected. Certainly there are no reports of positive results, but among specimens from that period now in the collections of the parasitology section at Westmead Hospital is a slide labelled ‘First Annulipes Infection’. There are no sporozoites visible on the slides but they may have faded in the intervening 70 years.

In November 1934, George and his colleague A J Bearup travelled to Mount Hagen and Kainantu in the highlands of New Guinea. Their objectives were to investigate the extent of infection with protozoan and helminth parasites and to determine, by use of skin tests, the degree of exposure of the population to bacterial infections such as tuberculosis, diphtheria and scarlet fever. Europeans had first entered the Ramu Valley at Kainantu only two years before and the Wahgi Valley at Mount Hagen in 1933.

While working at the AITM, George and Bearup had investigated the cause of cutaneous larva migrans. Using themselves as experimental subjects, they demonstrated that infective larvae of ancylostoma braziliense would cause a creeping eruption but found no evidence that it could produce intestinal infections in humans. In 1938, they obtained 35 adult hookworms from a resident of the Solomon Islands, after he had been treated with tetrachlorethylene. Twenty-seven of these worms were, at the time, identified as Ancylostoma braziliense. Infective larvae from faecal cultures were used to infect four human volunteers, including George and Bearup. All four developed patent infections and, following treatment, adult hookworms were recovered. These worms were initially also identified as Ancylostoma braziliense but, reviewed about 15 years later, were re-identified as Aceylanicum. In an era before the advent of ethics committees and risk assessments, this kind of experimentation was common amongst parasitologists, though not all used themselves or their colleagues as subjects. Such experiments also provided material for the extensive practical classes in the DTM&H. Another source of teaching material was Callan Park Hospital, where some GPI patients were treated by infecting them with malaria, usually Plasmodium malariae or P vivax. Blood from these patients was used in practical classes until 1956, well into the antibiotic era.

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The period from 1940 to 1945 was dominated by wartime activities. George, Bearup and Jim Lawrence investigated the prevalence of parasitic infection in Australian Army recruits. Of particular interest was the prevalence of asymptomatic infection with Entamoeba histolytica. They concluded that the rate of infection in men who had never left Australia was around 3 per cent, but they included in their estimate the so-called ‘small race’ of Entamoeba histolytica. This is now recognised as the separate species Entamoeba hartmanni. Exclusion of those isolates would approximately halve their rate to 1.5 per cent, similar to today’s estimates. It is now recognised that the great majority of such infections are with the non-pathogenic entamoeba dispar, not with entamoeba histolytica.

With so many men fighting in Papua and New Guinea, malaria assumed great significance. In 1942, there was a large epidemic of Plasmodium vivax malaria in Cairns, initially amongst military personnel but ultimately involving civilians as well. Identification of the vector became imperative and George was the first to recognise that it was Anopheles punctulatus moluccensis (Anopheles farauti).

George was acknowledged for his contribution to the war effort by Sir Neil Hamilton Fairley, Director of Medicine of the Australian Army:

For instance, the work of Dr G A M Heydon in defining the anopheline vectors both for Melanesia generally, and also for Northern Australia, was of basic importance. On this work was based the whole of the field malaria control methods employed by Allied Malaria Control Services in the South West Pacific. Dr Heydon also provided important information on the feeding habits of anopheline vectors and on many problems of helminthology and protozoology and especially ancylostomiasis and filariasis.

One of George’s other wartime contributions was unrelated to parasitology. In 1935, he had learned to fly, becoming highly proficient and competing successfully in championships against much younger pilots. Over the 21 years during which he held a licence, he owned six different light aircraft. During the war, he often undertook day and night flights over Sydney to provide practice for searchlight and anti-aircraft batteries. In 1936, he took up gliding, being the first in the country to tow a glider into the air by means of a powered aircraft.

In 1946, George retired from the SPHTM but continued his interest in parasitology. He had many other interests including, in later years, astronomy and cosmology. He made numerous generous donations, including one of £35,000 to the University of Sydney for the Charles Gilbert Heydon Travelling Fellowships in the Biological Sciences, as a memorial to his father who was a judge of the NSW Arbitration Court. Another £5,000 was donated towards the erection of the Mills Cross, a radio telescope developed by the Physics School at the University. In recognition of George’s beneficence, the University renamed the Zoology building the Heydon-Laurence Building in 2001. His cousin, Joan Laurence, made a bequest of over 2.5 million dollars to the University as a memorial to George Heydon. Clive Backhouse, George’s successor at the SPHTM, and Sir Edward Ford commented in an obituary; “George Heydon was a rare personality, rich in scientific and humanistic attributes, mingled with little eccentricities and lovable traits peculiarly his own.”

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Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) Heydon, George Aloysius Makinson. 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.