Western Health Logo

The People’s Hospital Tales from the surgeon's table

John Thomson

Play Video

Next arrow

John Thomson

Ear, nose and throat surgeon at Footscray 1955–1993

John Thomson was born in 1928 in Brisbane and went to Kangaroo Point state school. He won a scholarship to Brisbane Grammar and then later another scholarship to study medicine at the University of Queensland. He was also a senior surgeon at the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital, with a strong interest in the surgery of deafness.

Emerging from the shadow of the big city teaching hospitals

“Footscray started off being looked down upon by many in the profession who worked at the bigger teaching hospitals. Melbourne is a snobbish place. But all these prejudices iron out with the development of the work.”

The ethos of Footscray Hospital

“Although most of the surgeons weren’t paid, there was a crusader feeling about them. The work was worth doing because of the type of people you met.

People were top. Rory Willis was second in charge at the Royal Melbourne and the inaugural E.N.T specialist at Footscray. Rory was a man of great charm and integrity. He was a genius operator; he could operate with anything; he had incredible dexterity. Elizabeth McNeilage was the best theatre sister I ever met. She was wonderful.

Dr Lee Farrar, the Medical Superintendent, was a crusty old thing but he wanted to give what he could to help people.”

The fabulous four

“A tightly knit quadrumvirate of strong personalities ran the hospital for about 25 years until 1975.

That small executive group consisted of the president Roy Parsons, a Balwyn accountant, the hospital Superintendent Dr Lee Farrar (equivalent to a medical director) the manager Mr Ted France (CEO) and Matron Mavis Mitchell (nursing director).

A lot of the general surgeons such as Conrad Ley were ex-army and the nurses were too. McNeilage, Mitchell and Farrar was all ex-army and that discipline came through in the way that you got things done.

Matron Mitchell was the leader of the band. She was the boss. She had panache. She was a commanding, magnetic individual who was just and reasonable.

They were a group of genuine do-gooders who made it their life’s work to do something for someone else. They weren’t people on the make.

They were there to do something for the community. Parsons made nothing out of Footscray but he worked for the hospital night and day. He was a personal friend of the Premier Henry Bolte and he would often ring him and say, ‘Henry I’ve got a need here, can you help me?’

They ran the place on a shoestring for almost 25 years and kept people happy. They were united and had a purpose.”

Three of the fabulous four

Three of the fabulous four: President Roy Parsons (centre) Superintendent Dr W (Lee) Farrar (second from right) and Matron Mavis Mitchell in 1961 listen to Lady Lowe announcing the official opening of McArthur House – a 20-bed after care and convalescent wing of the hospital.

Western Health archives

Finding time to teach

“The Tutor Sister Elizabeth Hughes was also very influential. She was in charge of the nursing students. She was Scottish, a no nonsense type. She loved her work and the students.

We marked the nurses’ exam papers and did some teaching. We could give so little to Sister Hughes but she would always say, ‘Doctor, it’s time to give the nurses a lecture, when can you come?’ I’d go over with my slides from the Eye Ear Hospital and teach the students. She would always say to us, ‘Doctor, don’t you realise you’re educating young women, you’re not just training young nurses’.”

Play Video

Next arrow