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A life of service

by
January 11, 2018

Foundation members Margaret Wallis and Colin Officer cut the 50th birthday cake on Saturday.

Friends and family members packed out the the Anglican Church, Seymour, at 2 pm on Monday 8th January, 2018, for Dr Colin Officer's funeral service.

An era has ended in Seymour and district public service with the death, on December 31, of Dr Colin Officer, who had been a cornerstone of the community since 1957, when he joined the practice of Dr Ian King Scott.

In 2010 Dr Officer sat down and wrote the following account of his life, which he distributed to family and friends as his ‘CV’, he told them at the time.

Dr Officer’s family have graciously provided it to The Telegraph to share with its readers, most of whom have, at some point in their lives, been touched by this remarkable servant of the community.

Colin was born on October 13, 1928, the youngest son of Ernest Officer and Doris Officer (nee Veale). His father, who died in 1936, was a prominent grazier in the Riverina, a grandson of Robert Officer, who arrived in Van Diemens Land in 1822. His mother Dr Doris Officer was an English medical graduate, and as honorary secretary of the Victorian Baby Health Association for 30 years, was deeply involved in preventive medicine and health promotion.

Colin was educated at Geelong Grammar School and later at the University of Melbourne’s faculty of medicine.

He married Dr Margaret Nicol, whom he met in first year medicine at the Mildura Branch University, in 1954. She was his practice partner until her death in 1978. They had four daughters.

During his professional career he worked as a resident medical officer at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, and the Royal Women’s Hospital before furthering his medical studies in London from 1956-57, and completed several locums on his return, before settling at Seymour on November 29, 1957, in the practice of Dr Ian King Scott.

The doctors in the two separate practices served more than 7000 people, including the civilians of Puckapunyal and Seymour, and many from Broadford, Strath Creek, Tallarook and Avenel.

After the new Seymour Hospital was opened in 1959, there were 250 confinements a year, large numbers of motor accident cases and the GPs were expected to undertake a great variety of procedural work including lower abdominal surgery, tonsillectomies, anaesthetics, fractures and the medical management of many conditions which are seldom seen today or would routinely be transferred.

Home visits were performed whenever requested, routinely to Puckapunyal where a branch surgery was provided by the Army, and country visits 20 miles out.

The single ambulance and its trained officer were there for emergencies not simple transportation. It was the custom to use part of the home as a surgery, mornings, afternoons and evenings at first.

Medical management was much simpler, the antibiotics worked brilliantly, and paper was minimal. A proportion of the work was unpaid, especially that for pensioners and the indigent.

Under these conditions, two colleagues left Seymour after terms of five or six years. It seemed possible that Colin and Margaret might be left with the full workload, but they had anticipated that situation.

The chief problem was the town of Seymour itself. It was a ‘hang-dog’ sort of town, lacking sewerage, unkempt and uncultured. Its water supply was now partially treated but without filtration. Its chief assets were the surrounding countryside, the splendid Goulburn river and its recently rebuilt community hospital.

Only migrant doctors were likely to move to the country and Victorian registration rules permitted British graduates only. A six-month round-the-world trip to Britain was undertaken in 1965, for rest and recreation, some studies and medical recruitment.

Recruitment doubled the medical staffing of Seymour Hospital, with the Scottish doctors Bryce and Russell settling in Seymour and Dr Michael Heffernan (born and bred in Seymour) joining the Officers in 1966. They financed a purpose-built medical and dental clinic at 32 Anzac Ave, next door to the other practice. The aim was to allow possible future amalgamation and better medical facilities.

Changing Seymour’s image and outlook was the work of many. Fundamentally its low esteem was due to low wages in the town’s traditional industry, the railways, and the lack of full secondary education till 1948.

In 1960 Colin joined Rotary, the town’s first service club, then just six years old. He was an active member, with a term as secretary but is best remembered for chairing the club’s environment committee from 1972-78.

From 1964 till 1972 he was first secretary and second president of the fledgling Seymour Historical Society, which he always maintained gave Seymour a sense of self-respect.

His first project was to preserve a vintage steam locomotive as a ‘‘monument to the railway industry and its workers and in memory of the days of steam’’.

It touched a deep chord in this railway town, while members enjoyed numerous outings to historic sites within and far beyond the shire.

A museum was established and every available opportunity taken to promote Seymour’s colourful past. The Army was persuaded to bring its ceremonies into the town, the Armoured Corps having special historic interests going back to the Light Horse days.

The clinical workload increased between 1966 and 1972, and Dr Heffernan left to further his career. Colin was obliged to gradually cease his obstetrics and most procedural work. The dentist also moved next door to accommodate an enlarging practice. It was still impossible to recruit Australian medical graduates, but Margaret and Dr Dorothy Campbell (an old friend and previous assistant) gave part-time help. A Welshman joined the other practice, so things were never as bad as they had been.

Colin was fully convinced of the value of community nurses, paramedical people, welfare officers and better educated lay people to the delivery of general practice care, but frustrated by slow community progress towards the ideal.

Later on he served a year on the Broadford Community and was appalled by the bureaucracy and stingy funding. He supplied rooms to both an optometrist and a podiatrist, and was much cheered by the company of welfare officer Vernon Collins after Margaret’s death.

While pondering on Seymour Hospital’s future in an era of specialisation, he was approached in 1982 by a Dr Simmelman who wanted to invest $30000 in establishing a branch pathology laboratory service there but had been repulsed.

Finally convincing all three colleagues, he led a political campaign to achieve this objective, which with nurse couriers would serve a region from Kilmore to Nagambie and beyond.

After two years or so of bitter Health Department opposition, a fully bulk-billed private pathology service was installed, employing no less than 30 people.

He felt it was his finest medical hour, a crucial breakthrough leading to the private radiology service from Shepparton and a proliferation of appointed medical and surgical specialists.

Suddenly Seymour had no difficulty in getting GPs either. It was a vibrant and busy town served by a freeway.

Colin’s environmental work was progressive from 1972 onwards, much aided by his appointment as a director of The Telegraph.

He played a leadership role in achieving the major conservation reserves around Seymour or in bettering their management.

He promoted environment groups in both Seymour and Broadford, and was highly informed on the regional flora and fauna, especially birdlife. His late wife supported him in this and adored the bushlands and coast at Nelson in the state’s south-west where they built a holiday home.

After her death he moved to Broadford to live but not to work. Here he made a well-known native garden for birds and campaigned vigorously for preservation of wildflowers in urban reserves. His opinion was often sought on Land Care issues, corridor management and notably farm forest at the Broadford sewage farm.

In June 2000 he was runner-up for the Alcoa Award for outstanding service to the environment.

Colin was the recipient of the Order of Australia Medal in the Queen’s Birthday honours list in June 2004 for service to the community of Seymour, particularly as an environmentalist and as a medical practitioner.

— Dr Colin Officer

Dr Colin Officer, OAM and Life Member of Seymour and District Historical Society passed away on December 31. His funeral service was held on January 8 in Seymour.

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