Saturday, 16 June 2007

Keith Park and Harold Gillies

June 15 and 17 mark the birthdays of two New Zealanders whose international achievements influenced the course of history. Both New Zealanders feature in the Heroes section.

Born in Thames 115 years ago on June 15, and educated at Otago Boys High School, Keith Park was Commander of the Royal Air Force during the Allied evacuation from Dunkirk, and led the defense of London and southern England from German bombing raids during the Battle of Britain. When the Luftwaffe attacked in 1940 (flying nearly 1500 flights over England), Park controlled the urgent defense hour by hour, organizing and managing his squadrons and men brilliantly. Using an innovative radar defense system at Fighter Command, Park tracked German aircraft and advised British fighters, enabling them to intercept the raiders. When the early raids proved indecisive the Luftwaffe switched the assault to London. Their efforts intensified, but so did their losses and, on 17 September Hitler postponed Operation Sealion indefinitely.

It was at the conclusion of this victory over the German attack that Sir Winston Churchill was to memorably proclaim, "Never in the history of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few". Said Lord Tedder, Chief of the RAF, of Keith Park: "If any one man won the Battle of Britain, he did. I do not believe it is realized how much that one man, with his leadership, his calm judgment and his skill, did to save, not only this country, but the world." Park's repelling of the German air attack was attributed to his leadership, judgment and exemplary co-ordination skills. Elevated in stature as well as esteem (he was 6ft 5, deserving credit for merely fitting in an aircraft cockpit) his astute decision making was often based on a willingness to gain crucial information first hand, making frequent reconnaissance missions within range of German guns and fighters. His service was recognized with the Order of Commander of the Bath, two knighthoods, and honorary degrees and doctorates from Oxford University.

Post-war Sir Keith Park took a prominent part in the Auckland City Council. He died in 1975, aged 82. His contribution continues to be recognized. This week Flt Lt Phil Giles of the RAF in Fordingbridge, Hampshire wrote to nzedge informing of the naming of a new IT/Computer Flight Suite in Sir Keith's honour which will serve up to 20 Air Cadets aged 13-20 as they learn about aviation from computer simulation.

Harold Gillies was born 125 years ago in Dunedin on June 17; was a student at Wanganui Collegiate, and studied medicine at Cambridge University. Gillies was 32 when World War 1 broke out. The War was a challenge to most surgeons. The introduction of more destuctive weapons resulted in devastating injuries. In addition, in trench warfare the head was more exposed than the rest of the body, and soldiers' faces were often shattered or burnt beyond recognition. Despite the best efforts of surgeons, many soldiers were left hideously disfigured. A new type of surgery was needed. Realising this need a young surgeon operating out of Aldershot hospital, England, began performing operations which involved rebuilding the face by taking tissue from other parts of the body. This surgeon was Harold Gillies; by the end of the war some 11,000 patients had passed through his hands.

In 1920, his text book "Plastic Surgery of the Face" was published, setting down the principles of modern plastic surgery; principles which were adopted by surgeons from every part of the world. The British Medical Journal described it as "one of the most notable contributions made to surgical literature in our day". While his physical dexterity made him a master surgeon, Gillies’ artistic ability underpinned much of the work that he did in reshaping people's badly disfigured faces. For Gillies, plastic surgery not only involved restoring function but also making the person look normal and sometimes more beautiful than before. He was driven by the idea that the surgeon should be creative, imaginative - in fact an artist.

Gillies was an innovator: the 'epithelial outlay technique' and 'pedicle tube', and the 'intranasal skin graft' to correct nose defects caused by leprosy. He pioneered a new method for re-attaching severed limbs. Gillies was ahead of his time in carrying out sex change operations. Perhaps his greatest innovation was the pioneering of cosmetic surgery. During the 1930s, society women, film stars, and stage folk of both sexes came to Gillies. Following a lecture tour in the USA Gillies noted the "springing up of a large group of USA plastic surgeons". His popularity was so great that in 1941 when he was guest of honour at the American Congress of Ear, Nose and Throat (Chicago), more than 2000 came to hear him speak. In addition to Americans, Gillies had trained hundreds of surgeons from the 'dominions'.

Harold Gillies died in 1960 in New Zealand. Homesick after nearly 51 years absence, he flew in with his wife in the late autumn of 1955. Prior to leaving England, he told a close friend that "I want to smell the New Zealand bush on a wet day, I want to hear the tui, catch a brown trout, do a little painting, and perhaps play three or four holes of golf. And I want to see the pohutukawas in full bloom".

No comments: