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Against the Odds: Albert Coates, A Heroic Life – by Walter Gherardin

Books are meant to be read. But sometimes that can be very difficult. With 13 words to the line, 22 lines on the page, narrow margins and long paragraphs, reading this biography takes some effort. The production team certainly has a lot to account for.

23 Dec 2010

Albert Coates Memorial Trust – ISBN: 9780958119016

Reviewed by Dr John Donovan

Books are meant to be read. But sometimes that can be very difficult. With 13 words to the line, 22 lines on the page, narrow margins and long paragraphs, reading this biography takes some effort. The production team certainly has a lot to account for.

But don’t let that turn you off.

Behind these production failings is the story of a remarkable man, Sir Albert Coates, written by his son-in-law, Walter Gherardin. Coates was born in Ballarat in 1895 and, like many of that time, his post-primary education was irregular. He owed much to Leslie (later Sir Leslie) Morshead. Even then, Coates had expressed an interest in studying medicine, and he qualified for university entry in 1913. But a tertiary education was out of financial reach, and in 1914 Coates became a postman in Wangaratta. He enlisted two weeks after the outbreak of war, but was deemed too short for combat. He sailed in November 1914, and was in Egypt early in 1915. He witnessed the ANZAC landings while onboard ship, but did not land. He did land at Gallipoli in November 1915 and was medical orderly to the second-last group to leave on the night of 19-20 December.

By mid-1916, Coates was serving on the Western Front, where he remained until September 1918, when he was sent on home leave.

Before and throughout World War I Coates had been informally studying languages and medical subjects. After returning to Melbourne, he started and finished a medical degree. He began to specialise in neurosurgery, and was a founder of the Neurosurgical Society of Australia.

In the meantime, World War II had started. Coates volunteered for service but was initially refused. He was called up in December 1940, serving in Malaya, Singapore, and Sumatra, where he was captured in March 1942. From then until the Japanese surrender in August 1945, he worked heroically in camps on the Burmese end of the infamous railway. ‘Weary’ Dunlop’s role on the railway is better known: what is not well known is that shortly after the surrender, Dunlop accidentally cut tendons on his hand, and was operated on by Coates, enabling Dunlop to continue his own surgical career.

On returning home, Coates reverted to general surgical practice. He also became heavily involved in development of Melbourne’s hospitals, in medical and nursing education, and in services to veterans and to the community; he was knighted in 1955. He also advocated understanding of the Japanese, not a popular cause at the time. He died in 1977, having for many years been very influential in medical matters in Melbourne.

Despite its production flaws, this is an interesting biography by a family member of a remarkable leader.


Published: 23 Dec 2010