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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Ernest Sydney Finckh (1924–2009)

by Malcolm Brown

From the beginning of his medical career, Ernest Finckh was fascinated with finding out how things worked, or why they were not working. It led him to pathology, a discipline that takes in the causes and effects of disease.

Towards the end of an illustrious career that took him to the world stage of pathology, Finckh established pathology and medical research facilities at Westmead Hospital and for 10 years directed the services, helping to make the hospital a centre of excellence.

Over the years he studied many subjects, like gastritis, hepatitis, cirrhosis of the liver and later the HIV virus, gloomy but vitally important, and none of this had a depressing effect on him. A visiting academic to the University of Sydney later in Finckh's career said he did not care for the professor at the time, but of the associate professor, Finckh, he said, ''Now there's a man with a twinkle in his eye.''

Ernest Sydney Finckh was born in Sydney on June 13, 1924, the son of a jeweller and watchmaker, Ernest Finckh, and his wife, Tilla Boeklen. He went to Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore) then to the University of Sydney, where he graduated in medicine with honours in 1946. He did two years of residency at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, then worked for two years with the Red Cross Blood Transfusion Service before returning to RPA as a vocational fellow in pathology. He also fell in love with a nurse, Nancye Llewelyn. They were married in 1955 then left for Melbourne, where Finckh became a researcher at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute.

In 1956 Finckh took up a Nuffield Dominion Travelling Fellowship, working as a visiting research fellow in morbid anatomy (as pathology was then called) at the University College Hospital, London and, in 1957, became a senior pathology lecturer at the University of Sydney.

In 1964 he won the Peter Bancroft Prize for medical research at the university and took up a Fulbright Scholarship in the United States, working for two years as a guest investigator at the Rockefeller Institute for medical research in New York. He resumed his post at Sydney in 1966 and in 1969 became associate professor in experimental pathology, working at the university's Institute of Pathology and Medical Research at Lidcombe Hospital.

In 1969 Finckh also joined the Sydney Amateur Sailing Club and raced for two decades. But the immediate tumult did not come from the waves. It came from fellow pathologists, who in 1971 were in uproar over an attempt to regionalise pathology services rather than have them centralised at RPA. Finckh, being in a senior position, took an even-handed approach. In effect, regionalisation was inevitable.

Finckh was elected president of the World Association of Societies in Pathology and in 1975 chaired the Scientific Program Committee. Also that year, the annual meeting of the Royal College of Pathologists of Australia was held in conjunction with the World Association of Anatomic and Clinical Pathology. In preparation for this, Finckh had abstracts for the talks spread all over the dining table at his home in Lindfield. A colleague commented that the family must have been eating the abstracts.

In 1976 Finckh published a book on the conference proceedings, titled The Effects of the Environment on Cells and Tissues.

In his sailing career, with his eight-metre Highlander yacht called Megan (for the family: Martin, Ernest, Geoffrey, Andrew and Nancye) he was successful but not immune from mishaps. In one race Megan broached in a strong southerly and the spinnaker wrapped around the mast. The boat hit the rocks at Chowder Bay and the sailors had to be rescued by the water police.

A new hospital was built at Westmead, and Finckh, with his ''customary energy and foresight'', as one academic put it, took on the task of designing the laboratory facilities. What he produced would stand the test both of time and of huge changes in pathology practice. The hospital was opened in 1978, and in 1979 the Institute of Pathology and Medical Research was transferred there from Lidcombe. Finckh became the its director.

He was also elected president of the Royal College of Pathologists of Australia, which gave him a very busy schedule. Associate Professor Robert Osborn, who was head of the Department of Anatomical Pathology at Westmead, said access to him was limited; Finckh was always busy, moving constantly between duties. The institute served the local area and rural NSW and was a reference centre for hospitals throughout Australia. Its pathology and medical research service became one of the best, if not the premier, facility of its type in the country. Finckh's successor as director, Professor Creswell Eastman, said Finckh deserves a lot of credit for that.

In 1988 Nancye died of breast cancer, which dealt Finckh a heavy blow. He retired from the institute in 1989, and in 1993 married Heather Hay. They moved to Nelson Bay and then Tea Gardens, north of Newcastle. Finckh retained his professional interests, particularly in cell biology, and published more papers.

Earnest Finckh is survived by Heather, Martin, Geoffrey and Andrew, three daughters-in-law and seven grandchildren.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'Finckh, Ernest Sydney (1924–2009)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 18 June 2024.

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