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Esmond Venner Keogh

Lyndsay Gardiner
Any biography depends on the voices of the past - or perhaps I should say on words from the past, because naturally I include in the term 'voices' the written as well as the spoken word. If one's subject is recent enough for surviving family, friends and colleagues to provide oral information and impressions, that is a bonus. Most particularly, of course, one requires ideally the voice of one's subject - in letters and diaries or just odd jottings (eg. 'Put out the cat!'). When I embarked on the biography of Esmond Venner Keogh this last, highly desirable ingredient was apparently completely lacking.

Bill Keogh (1895-1970) was a very private person; we all are, to some extent, but with him, for various reasons, privacy was almost an obsession, to the point that one sometimes feels that he was careful not to let his right hand know what his left was doing. He seemed to make almost a fetish of destroying personal papers. Those I have unearthed were, with a few trifling exceptions, found in public records.

The trouble with public records, of course, is that they do not normally tell one much, if anything, personal. Thus I had records from the three schools which Bill attended; I gleaned from them the dates of his attendance at each, and the fact that his scholastic performance was no better than mediocre, but nothing about Bill as a boy. Again, in the meticulous records kept by the Army, I traced him step by step to Gallipoli and France and home again during Word War I, and twenty years later to the middle East and back to Australia where he became Director of Hygiene and Pathology in the Australian Army. I learnt with great accuracy where he was and when, but nothing about Bill the person, save for a cryptic note in 1917 saying simply 'G.S.W.R.H.', which an obliging Officer translated for me as 'Gun Shot Wound, Right Hand'. University records were equally bald, if less detailed: 'P' or 'N', Honours awarded, financial assistance as an ex-serviceman. Speculum was marginally better - at last a person could be vaguely glimpsed in references to the 'rags' in which Bill took part, and in his own well-considered and sensible criticism of the medical course of the 1920s. As for the Victorian Health Department, that was an almost complete loss, showing me merely that Bill could write a competent Annual Report, which was scarcely a surprise in the Director of a major departmental branch. The Commonwealth Serum Laboratories (C.S.L), where Bill worked for some twenty years, produced, after some heart-stopping fumbles, his file from their personnel records; not 'personal' exactly, but revealing to me where a very new doctor had worked at the start of his career, and the medical problems and experiences to which he had been exposed, which led to his life-long interest in public, as distinct from clinical, medicine.

After all this searching of documentary material - and here I am deliberately excluding oral information - I had in my hands only the outline of a career, only the skeleton of a man. What about the flesh and blood, the vital human being? It was not until I reached the final stage of Bill's career, from 1956-68, as Medical Adviser to the Anti-Cancer Council (A-C.C.), that I found any substantial body of archival material which revealed to me 'Bill-the-person'.

Here I must hand out two bouquets. One goes to Bill's secretary in his years at the Council. She kept filed in orderly fashion all his correspondence as Medical Advisor. This appears to be the only surviving corpus of archival material produced by Bill himself, other than his professional papers, his formal reports and such like. The correspondence has now been sorted, numbered and boxed by the archivist who, happily for me, began his task at the Council at about the same time that I undertook the biography. The second bouquet goes to the Australian Science Archives Project. They employed the archivist; without him and without the model secretary, my life of Keogh would have been no more than a stark and impersonal chronicle. Not only I, but many other biographers, owe and will owe a great debt to the Project - and to all good secretaries.

Now, let me describe briefly how the A-C.C. records brought Bill to life. There is no space even to touch on many of the facets of his personality which they revealed, but I want to share just two or three of them. (Note that I am describing the mid-1950s and the 1960s when cancer was still, in the community, virtually a taboo subject, little understood, rarely mentioned; among the lay population it was the Great Fear, the Great Unknown).

To deal with this fear, this ignorance, Bill encouraged people to write to him with their worries, their queries and suggestions; he replied to them all personally. There are hundreds of letters. Some replies were factual and straightforward; thus, several eager school childred, wishing to share in exciting medico-scientific work, were advised to matriculate in appropriate subjects and then attempt science or medical courses; thus, the gentleman wanting to bequeath his body for scientific research was advised to contact the University's Anatomy Department; thus, those offering their services as interpreters to migrants were referred to the public hospitals. All sensible and constructive suggestions, all directed personally and courteously to each individual enquirer. On the vexed matter of early and prompt examination if cancer were suspected, Bill could offer no such quick and easy answer; there simply was no public diagnostic centre in Melbourne for the detection of cancer, as there was, for instance, in some US cities. Bill said so; he could only recommend a writer to see his or her local G.P., knowing full-well that too often the examinations would be cursory and the curt advice given to 'go home and stop worrying'. Bill's feelings of frustration were apparent.

His responses reveal too how receptive he was to suggestions from the public. One example struck me forcibly - from a lady concerned about the link between lung cancer and smoking. She suggested that a warning should be compulsory on the outside of every packet of tobacco or cigarettes. Bill thanked her most warmly for her 'interesting and thoughtful letter', describing the idea as 'a novel one'. So novel indeed that it was more than a decade, and Bill was dead, before it was adopted by authority. But Bill recognised and acknowledged its value instantly.

The letters show us also Bill's patience. He was asked the most extraordinary things. 'What about those black pieces which appear when the potato is nearly cold?' one lady wrote, alarmed that her home-brewed ginger beer might be the vehicle of a carcinogenic substance. To her and to many like her, Bill could be comfortably reassuring: 'As far as we know no food or combination of foods will cure or cause cancer.' He was unfailingly courteous to all enquirers, most especially to those battling gamely with an alien language.

And finally, to letters from frightened people, Bill's responses reveal concern and a deep compassion. The depths of ignorance and fear were quite tragic: 'I live alone', wrote one woman, 'What will happen to me if I get cancer?' and another 'If cancer is diagnosed, is the operation compulsory?'. Bill was never dismissive, never condescending. He was engaged, officially, in a 'public education' program, yet his letters show us not the public face of the writer, but quite clearly one human being communicating directly with others in trouble, offering sympathy, information and support.

There is, of course, a great deal of other Keogh material in the Keogh papers, most of it of a strictly professional, medico-scientific kind dealing with his research work, his committee work, his scientific papers. What I have been trying to show here is how scientific archives may have another use also, in that they may reveal not merely the professional but also the personal side of the individual concerned. Without the person revealed in the Anti-Cancer Council letters, the Bill of my biography would have been less rounded, less complete, much less human.

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