Dr Hugh Flack (1903–1975)

Angus Martin

 Dr Hugh Flack
Dr Hugh Flack, 1940s
Born Coagh, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, 11 March 1903
Died Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, 14 April 1975

The village of Coagh stands on the Ballinderry River between Cookstown and Lough Neagh. Centrally placed on Hanover Square there stands a prominent, two-storey, L-shaped building, dating from 1770, which was acquired by Hugh Flack, of Scottish descent, in 1820. In due course it passed to his son, also Hugh Flack (1878-1948) and his wife Emma née Nesbitt (b. 1877); in their time it included not only a dwelling, but a pub and grocery as well as accommodation for their small herd of short-horn cattle, which were regularly exhibited at regional shows. Hugh, a Presbyterian and a member of the Grand Royal Arch Chapter of Ireland, is listed in the 1911 census as a merchant, publican and farmer. Their four sons and two daughters were born here; the eldest son, also Hugh (b. 1903), is the subject of this profile. It was a tradition for first-born sons to be called Hugh; indeed a family story relates that on a train trip to Belfast, Hugh father, son and grandson once found themselves in a carriage in the company of ten other Hughs.

Emma’s Scottish mother’s family, the Dunns, included at least three naval surgeons (correspondence from them is still in the family’s possession); and both Hugh and his youngest brother George Herbert (b. 1916) became medical doctors. George was married at Coagh Presbyterian Church and spent his life in general medical practice in the village. Younger daughter Anna (b. 1920) also undertook medical training, but didn’t complete the course, and elder daughter Mary (b. 1913) became a schoolteacher. Second son Edmond (b. 1904) went into the motor trade; the life of third son John (b. 1910) was cut short (probably by tuberculosis) at the age of only 22.

In 1919, after attending the local primary school, Hugh enrolled at the Methodist (“Methody”) College, Belfast, where he was a member of the First XV Rugby and First XI Cricket teams and a track athlete. His Senior Grade qualification gave him entry to Queen’s University, Belfast, where he graduated MB BCh, with Diploma in Obstetrics and Gynaecology, in 1926.

According to the elder of Hugh’s two sons (guess his name) his father’s whole life revolved around his practice of medicine. He had no interest, however, in becoming what he called “a society doctor”, treating the fashionable ailments of well-off people; what drove him was a desire to dedicate his skills to those with more pressing requirements for medical care, the poor and needy. After completing an internship in Sheffield he took ship to India in 1928, to become Medical Officer for the Doom Dooma Tea Company’s several estates in the Tinsukia area of north-eastern Assam. He also served as Chairman and Honorary Magistrate for Doom Dooma; an inscribed silver plate presented to him in 1941 honours his service to the company and community. Following the outbreak of the Second World War, he was unable to join the British army without going back to the U.K.; hence he enlisted in the Indian Army Medical Corps in Calcutta. He was seconded to the local army hospital and his duties included attending to injured soldiers coming out of Burma, as well as organising supplies of medical needs and equipment to the Chindit Special Force in Burma. He ended the war with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.

But before this, in May 1938, he had decided to use a period of long-service leave to revisit his native Ireland. Among his fellow-passengers on board the RMS Dunnottar Castle were 26-year-old South African Muriel (“Moolie”) Hickman from Johannesburg, and her mother Helen, who had been holidaying in India. Helen and her husband Frank Davis Hickman were English-born; they settled in South Africa in 1910 after Frank, a quantity surveyor, was employed in the construction of the Union Buildings (seat of government) in Pretoria. Moolie was born and schooled in Johannesburg; her father then paid for her to undertake teacher training in England, where she also attended a finishing school in the Lake District. Having completed her training, she infuriated Frank by announcing that she had no intention of becoming a teacher, and took a job selling women’s accessories such as handbags and jewellery. She and Hugh met during the two-week Calcutta-to-Durban leg of the voyage, while both of them were doing deck-circuits for exercise. She disembarked in South Africa while Hugh continued on to Ireland, but they stayed in touch by letter and telephone (calls had to be booked two days ahead!). He proposed, and on his way back to India, detoured to Johannesburg where they were married at St Augustine’s Church, Orange Grove, on 4th October 1938. After a honeymoon in the Kruger National Park, they sailed for Assam, where their marital home was Hugh’s “bungalow on stilts”. Here their two sons were born: Hugh on 19 October 1939 and John (“Chick”) on 1 March 1941.

What had begun as a brief shipboard romance flourished, and the complementary personalities of Hugh and Moolie provided the foundation of a happy and enduring marriage. A school contemporary remembers Moolie earning the title of “naughtiest girl in the school”: she was a strong-willed, competitive and determined person who didn’t let anything stand in her way (Mrs Fix-it, Mrs Do-it, in son Hugh’s phrase). Hugh’s predominant focus was always his medical practice; it was a way of life for him, rather than simply a way to earn a living. He found little attraction in such pursuits as golf, gardening and home maintenance, and he was happy to allow Moolie to set the broad course of their family life.

In the latter part of 1941 it was feared that the Japanese would overrun Burma and attack India, leading to Moolie and the two boys being evacuated. Moolie, with five-month-old Chick and two-year-old Hugh, had to undertake the hazardous journey across India by train from Calcutta to Bombay and then by ship to Durban and, finally, by land to Johannesburg. Moolie and the children returned to Calcutta in 1944; Chick, then three years old, vividly remembers visiting the private and highly exclusive Calcutta Swimming Club, where he caused general consternation by falling into the Olympic-size swimming pool, a memory re-kindled on a visit to the city in 2006.

Hugh was demobbed in 1945 and the family sailed from Calcutta to Southampton and then to Coagh. Moolie and the boys stayed with Hugh’s parents for nine months while Hugh undertook a specialist course in Ophthalmology at Queens. In late 1946 or early 1947 the family flew back to Johannesburg; and Hugh found a position in a private medical practice in the city. But this was absolutely not the kind of medicine that fulfilled his passion, and in mid-1947 he jumped at the chance to take up the position of Chief Medical Officer at the hospital in Mbabane.

Mbabane is the capital of the small (17,300 sq km), landlocked country of Swaziland, surrounded by South Africa and Mozambique, which then had a population of 270,000 (now 1.3 million). Despite its small size it includes a range of landscapes, from mountains in the west reaching 1500m, to lowland plains and savannahs. About 75 percent of the population is employed in subsistence agriculture; sugar (both raw and refined), citrus fruits, forestry products and textiles are the main exports. From being a protectorate of the South African Republic, it became a British protectorate after the South African War and from 1906 was ruled by a British resident Commissioner. After the Second World War, however, Britain began to prepare Swaziland for independence, with self-government under the paramount chief, King Sobhuza II. Independence was granted on 6 September 1968; however in 1973 King Sobhuza, among the world’s longest-reigning monarchs (82 years), suspended the constitution, and ruled by decree until his death in 1982.

The white community of Mbabane in the Flacks’ day numbered only some 600 people; Hugh and Moolie were prominent members of it. They did not aspire to a luxury lifestyle or an upmarket car or home; instead there was a rural, almost storybook, simplicity to the family’s life. As an instance, fresh milk from the prison herd was supplied daily, at no cost, in part-exchange for Hugh’s medical services. A regular breakfast guest was the warden, accompanied by a prisoner who then stayed all day to work in the garden under Moolie’s direction. As a keen golfer, she quickly became honorary greenkeeper; and habitually and unworriedly “borrowed” groups of prisoners and set them to work at the golf course. Young Hugh warmly recalls his childhood in a friendly community free of serious crime, with parents sensible (and trusting) enough to “let us run loose, so to speak.”

Hugh was one of only two doctors at the hospital; both his abilities and his personality made him the favourite practitioner. The role demanded substantial versatility, given that the nearest specialists were in Johannesburg (400 km away). Most patients were Swazis, including members of the royal household; most were poor. He was allowed to take “private” patients, and he could refer complicated cases to Johannesburg, but this option was rarely realistic because of the cost. As well as his hospital duties, Hugh was school doctor and prison doctor; known and loved throughout the community. Young Hugh remembers his father performing in the role of Father Christmas so convincingly that he didn’t recognise him until an older boy (spoilsport!) spilled the beans. He and Chick attended a whites-only, coeducational primary school in Mbabane, but for their secondary schooling were sent to a boys’ boarding school in South Africa (St Andrews’s College, Grahamstown).

In 1951 Hugh and the two boys (then aged 12 and 10) set sail on the RMS Bloemfontein Castle for Southampton, and thence to Coagh. The boys attended the local village school, where they were frequently in trouble for getting into fights with local boys who teased them for having such “funny” accents. Hugh was subsequently to visit his birthplace once more, in 1968, when he was an honoured guest at Methody College’s Centenary celebrations.

In about 1956 Hugh was transferred, against his will, to the hospital in Hlatikulu in the south of Swaziland. He worked there for long enough to qualify for his pension, and then moved again to Siteki (then called Stegi) in the east, close to the Mozambique border, where he established a private practice. Their house abutted the golf course, which not only delighted Moolie, but probably saved my father’s life. During a visit to the Flacks, he had a serious heart attack, quickly diagnosed by Hugh. A phone call to his friend the local light-plane pilot resulted in short order in his coolly landing his plane on the adjacent fairway, taking the patient on board, and flying him to Johannesburg. He made a good recovery; what the episode reinforced in my mind was the way in which the bonds of social cooperation in a remote community can more than compensate for isolation and small population.

Hugh’s sixtieth year, 1962, saw them return to South Africa, where they settled in Pietermaritzburg, and Hugh (no surprise) took up a position in a clinic serving the needs of non-white people. His lifetime reluctance to extract payment from poorer patients led to the Flacks’ financial status in their later years being somewhat parlous, and he continued to work in this role until his death on 14 April 1975. Moolie outlived him by 13 years, eventually dying after a series of strokes in October 1988.

Was Hugh disappointed that neither of his sons followed him into the field of medicine (they both made their careers in financial/commercial fields)? Perhaps, but he would have been delighted, had he lived, to see his eldest grandson not only graduate in medicine but become Deputy Director of Anaesthesiology at the University of Washington’s Children’s Hospital in Seattle.

One more element of the life of this humble, compassionate and dedicated man deserves mention. In his schooldays at Methody a close friend was fellow-member of the rugby team Cyril Rangecroft, whose life was tragically brought to an end by tuberculosis at the age of only 21. But Cyril’s younger brother Bob (also a Methody student, though several years behind Hugh and Cyril) thrived and emigrated to South Africa in 1938; he married in Johannesburg in 1940. And his bride, Christine Hickman, was Moolie Flack’s younger sister. I come into the story because my mother, Peggy, was a third (and eldest) Hickman sister; that is the reason I have the good fortune to have had two Irish uncles. My father, Peggy’s husband, was a South African of Scottish ancestry.

Surely some benign cosmic influence must have been at work, to lead the two young Irishmen Hugh and Bob, who followed separate and distinctive paths in far-flung corners of the world, to independently meet and make their lives with two sisters who became their steadfast and supportive life-long partners.

[I gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Dr Flack’s sons, and of genealogical wizard Sue Delamore, in compiling this history.]


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