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Frank Harland Mills (1910–2008)

by John Farquharson

Dr Frank Mills was not only one of the most outstanding surgeons Australia has produced but, as a pioneer in heart surgery, he developed procedures that were adopted throughout the country, giving a chance of longer life to thousands of people.

Dr Mills, who has died in Sydney, aged 97, also had a war record equally as distinguished as his life-long friend and colleague ‘Weary’ Dunlop. In the prisoner of war camps of Borneo – Sandaken and Kuching – he mirrored Dunlop’s Burma railway work by saving the lives of many soldiers through his surgery skills and brilliant medical improvisations.

The public acclaim that came to envelop Dunlop did not extend to the self-effacing Mills, though his achievements were undoubtedly as significant. However, he did come to prominence in 1952 when credited with saving the life of talented Sydney actress Megan Edwards. In the first operation of its kind in Australia, Dr Mills ‘removed one of Miss Edwards’ ribs, and then held her heart in one hand while he widened the vital tricuspid valve with a small blade attached to the tip of the forefinger of the other hand’. Before this operation, Dr Mills had already performed the first successful ‘blue baby’ operation in Australia at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, where he had been appointed an honorary surgeon after his return to civilian life in 1946.

As well as his enormous contribution to surgery, which continued in various ways until he was in his late seventies, he found time to participate in other spheres. He was one of the original syndicate of the Rothbury Estate vineyard, and his great love of the land found expression through his work in the development of the Wollagorang Pastoral Company where he served as a director, including a stint as chairman.

Born in Armidale, NSW, on 20 June 1910, Frank Mills grew up, from the age of eight, in Moruya, on the NSW south coast where he had what he called a ‘Tom Sawyer childhood’, running free around the countryside. The freedom he enjoyed probably owed much to the fact that his father, a widower, had been left with four young children to bring up. The Mills children – Frank, his brother and two sisters – had lost their mother two years before their father, a magistrate and land agent, had been transferred from Armidale to Moruya.

Frank Mills had always wanted to be a doctor and when his eldest sister told their father that Frank was ‘good at school’ and should go to high school, arrangements were made for him to sit the entrance exam for Wollongong High School, which he passed with ease. After five years at Wollongong High, and with a good Leaving Certificate pass, he went to Sydney University on an exhibition and a scholarship to St Andrew’s college to study medicine. He topped his final year and won the two major prizes – the H. J. Clayton prize for medicine and clinical medicine and the Professor Windeyer prize for obstetrics.

Following university he went in 1934 to Royal Prince Alfred Hospital as a junior resident medical officer. He became a senior resident the following year before becoming medical superintendent of Marrickville Hospital in 1937. However, before the year was out he was awarded the Walter and Eliza Hall Travelling Medical Research Fellowship and carried out research on thyroid diseases at the Royal College of Surgeons, London, working with Dr Frank Rundell, who later became head of medicine at the University of NSW.

While engaged in this work, he took three months off to sit for the exam to qualify as a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons (FRCS). Also taking the exam was ‘Weary’ Dunlop. They studied together, sharing the reading between them. Mills passed, and ‘Weary’ got through after a hiccup over a diagnosis he made, was resolved in his favour. Mills was also awarded the prestigious and valuable Leverhulme Scholarship, established by William Hesketh Lever, the famous soap manufacturer, who became the first Lord Leverhulme. This took him to Oxford University in 1939 when he also became Hunterian Professor of the Royal College of Surgeons.

On the outbreak of war, he returned to Australia and enlisted in the AIF, but his entry into the Royal Australian Army Medical Corps (RAAMC) was deferred until he had completed the final year of his Leverhulme Scholarship. In 1941, he was appointed a captain with the 2/10 AGH and sailed with the 8th division for Malaya. During the Malayan campaign he also served with the 2/10 Field Company RAE and the 2/9 Field Ambulance. After the fall of Singapore in February 1942, Mills spent three months in Changi prison, before being shipped to Sandaken, North Borneo, along with 1500 other PoWs to work on the construction of an aerodrome. Mills was sent as surgeon with this group, which included the 10th Field Ambulance. In September 1943, Mills, along with about half the PoWs were moved from Sandaken around the coast to Kuching. Mills tried to have himself included among those who were to stay at Sandaken, but the Japanese refused his request, even though he was the only surgeon. In the event this proved a stroke of luck, as all the Kuching prisoners escaped the notorious Sandaken death march.

As a PoW, Dr Mills performed surgery under the most difficult conditions, using sterilised razor blades, sewing the incisions with sterilised thread taken from his shirt. At the deserted agricultural research station, he found documents dealing with a protein-rich plant growing in the area; this he identified and the troops were able to boil down the leaves and increase their essential food supply. By pulverising and boiling natural clay, he was able to produce a crude kaolin powder to treat tropical ulcers with the result that no man at Kuching lost a limb. Peptic ulcers were treated with equal success by doses of wood ash in lieu of more acceptable alkalis. At Kuching he teamed up with Dr Marcus Clarke, who had been living in Borneo before the Japanese occupation, and turning his mind to cardiac surgery techniques began to ponder the possibility of an artificial heart.

Back in Australia after being released from captivity, he found surfing a great antidote for trauma stemming from his wartime experiences. He was still surfing, and even driving a car into his nineties. On resuming his medical career after the war, he sought to develop some of the techniques he had thought about during his three and a half years as a PoW, but technical difficulties precluded progress. With his mind ever upon alleviating congenital heart disease sufferers, he won a Carnegie Grant to study under Professor Blalock at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, developments made there in cardio-vascular surgery. On returning to Australia, he carried out the first operations on the heart itself ever performed in this country – including the ‘blue baby’ operation.

But Mills did not just copy the Blalock techniques, he developed many procedures of his own conception and applied them with skill and determination. Over the next decade he carried out hundreds of intricate heart operations, saving the lives of many patients in jeopardy from imminent cardiac failure. One of these procedures on the heart’s mitral valve, offered the chance of longer life to sufferers from the after-effects of rheumatic fever. Another procedure, performed for the first time in Australia, was the replacement of the thoracic aorta by a human tissue graft. After a personal appeal by Dr Mills to the then NSW Premier, Joe Cahill, this led to a revision of the law in NSW in respect of the use of human tissue, rather than animal tissue, opening the way for further grafting operations.

His work attracted the attention of industrialist and philanthropist, Sir Edward Hallstrom, who endowed the Institute of Cardiology at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital where many of the new cardiac techniques introduced in Australia were perfected. The inspiration and much of the skill came from Dr Mills who, in 1955, using a hypothermia technique developed in America, and assisted by Dr A. F. Grant, performed what is thought to be the first open-heart surgery done in Australia – the open repair of an atreal septal defect. Subsequently, in association with Hallstrom he and Dr Sinclair-Smith arranged for a visit to RPAH by Dr Henry Bahnson and Dr Frank Spencer, from Johns Hopkins Hospital. In collaboration with the American doctors, Dr Mills scored another first in Australia in 1957 by using an artificial heart machine.

In 1960, after a serious illness, he concentrated more on general surgery. Here again his skill and innovative initiatives were in evidence. It was during this period, too, that he turned his searching, but ever practical mind, to researching some aspects of cancer treatment. The pre-eminence, which he attained as a surgeon, won him recognition both at home and overseas, particularly in Britain and the United States. In the 1990 Australia Day honours, he was made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) and in 2005 Sydney University conferred upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of Medicine. This recognised his services to medicine especially in the areas of heart surgery and teaching as well as his wartime medical work. 

He deserved to be better known, but throughout his long life, he always shunned the limelight and would never provide the information for an entry in Who’s Who, or similar publications. However, colleagues, patients and others whose lives he touched knew his worth and held him in high esteem. In the words of a long-time colleague and RPAH surgeon, the late Dr Donald Sheldon, ‘His innate abilities, meticulous skill, absolute dedication and faultless pursuit of his calling made him an idol of his colleagues and a much loved and respected doctor by his patients. He had an enormous influence on several generations of surgeons, firstly as an active surgeon and later as a senior consultant and adviser to many of his erstwhile pupils’.

Dr Mills is survived by his wife, Elayne, son, Jonathan, and daughter, Corinna.

Dr Frank Harland Mills, born Armidale, NSW, 20 June 1910; died Sydney, 6 April 2008

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Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Mills, Frank Harland (1910–2008)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 June 2024.

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