; That old bastard_ he knew
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That old bastard_ he knew


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									‘That old bastard, he knew’
‘Is [the doctor] safe?’ Joe asked, a little suspiciously … ’That doesn’t matter,’ Rennie said
                                                      The End of the Road (1958), John Barth

When The Sydney Morning Herald awarded Ruth Park its inaugural fiction prize in 1948
for The Harp in the South, it was unprepared for the outraged reaction. The novel places
heroine Roie on the path to a Surry Hills abortionist, egged on by thoughts of the proud
working-class women she knows: ‘Didn’t old Mrs Campion next door openly boast of
her fifteen misses? She took something …’ Clawed at by her Catholicism, Roie baulks at
the last moment, only to be beaten by marauding sailors. But her mother has already
experienced a shock ‘which was never altogether to leave her’—and the same applied to
the readership. Cascades of correspondence ensued. ‘The book was immoral, filthy in
fact, though no specific filth was ever mentioned’, Park recalled. ‘Some letters were well-
intentioned and written by people who gave their names and addresses. The filth-
protestors mostly signed their letters Yours Prayerfully, A Christian. Or, Catholic
Mother, and gave no addresses.’
         Yet by the late 1940s, the face of abortion was changing. Doctors were suddenly
perceiving its attractions. Many were dealing with the impact of penicillin, which made
treatments simpler, but also shorter, and thus cheaper. To move into abortion was to go
with the flow: to take advantage of the power of antibiotics to curb infection, which had
been the procedure’s gravest risk. The chief beneficiaries of the illegality of abortion
would henceforward be doctors, able to extract super profits from medicine becoming
increasingly exoteric.
         Chief among them in Melbourne would be Dr John Heath. Nobody meeting the
upstanding Heath would have guessed his tawdry upbringing. John Read William Allan
was born in Northcote on 10 April 1902. His father was 22-year-old journalist James
Alexander Allan, his mother 16-year-old Ignez Louise nee Heath. Theirs had been a rush
to the altar in October 1901, followed by a brief marriage that ended when James cast
Ignez out, and she fell back on her builder father Bill. Then, when John was not quite
two, his mother died of typhoid; his earliest memory would be of people crying at
Heidelberg Cemetery as what he took to be a box was carried past.
         John was uneasily incorporated into his grandfather’s family, taking their name,
and treating Bill’s children as siblings. Enrolled first at Alexandra College, a small
Northcote school, he was then grudged a couple of years at Geelong College before being
pressed into a real estate apprenticeship he disliked intensely. It was on taking a lowly job
with a chemist that he resolved to bootstrap himself up in the world by tackling medicine
at Melbourne University. His self-propelling upward mobility paid off. On 25 July 1928,
after spells as a resident medical officer at the Alfred Hospital and a GP in Mooroopna,
he married Olive Baird, daughter of a family wealthy from the grain trade: he borrowed
£200 from his new father-in-law to open rooms in Rathdowne Street, Carlton.
         Abortion came to Heath rather than the other way round. With the benefit of a
year at Edinburgh Infirmary, he started work as a gynaecologist at Burlington Chambers,
94 Collins Street. Like Sir Hugh Devine, the much-admired founder of the Royal
Australasian College of Surgeons, who operated nearby, Heath equipped an operating
theatre on the premises. Then, around 1940, his uncle/brother Bill Jnr, now a pilot,
approached him. He had a girl in trouble. John was a doctor: couldn’t something be
done? In fact, Heath found he had an aptitude for abortion, not to mention some personal
insight into inopportune pregnancies.
         ‘I am a strict disciplinarian’, Heath said of himself, ‘and insist on efficiency in
every way’. He was strict not least with himself, keeping a tight lid on his background.
Silvering, moustachioed and dapper, Heath oozed rectitude. He became a major in the
Army Medical Corps and a Justice of the Peace, joined the Naval and Military Club, and
helped found the White Ensign Club, providing comfortable lodgings for visiting naval
personnel. He was a dedicated supporter of the Newsboys Club, the charity for
underprivileged youth run by Edith Onians. He belonged to the ‘Pups’, a group of
wealthy businessmen, doctors and lawyers who held an annual lunch to pool money for
good works. He could afford to be a generous benefactor, because in abortion he had the
sleekest of cash cows. And whatever his charitable instincts, charity for Heath began at
home—or, to be more exact, homes. For from 1951, he was leading a curious double life.
         Heath’s marriage was never happy. Olive had a sister in a mental institution, and
punished her husband for inattention with brooding and rage; daughter Patricia was
moody and intractable. Corinne Blackwell, a former hostess with Australian National
Airways, joined his practice as a receptionist; pretty, shrewd and strong-willed, she
became his partner in every respect but marriage. He already owned ‘Mowbray’, a two-
storey Toorak mansion in cream rendered brick with a U-shaped driveway and tennis
court, and ‘Los Angeles’, a teeming St Kilda boarding house. Now he acquired
Burlington Chambers, Collins Street’s only remaining single-storey building, a nearby
Alfred Place nightclub called ‘The Delphic’, and a bluestone retreat off Camp Road in
Campbellfield called ‘The Manor House’. Abandoning Olive to rattle around in
Mowbray, Heath spent most of his time at the last with Corinne.
         On The Manor House’s 4 hectares, they began an adjunct to their business. Girls
whose pregnancies were too advanced for termination could live in as domestics until
they reached full term, when Heath would deliver them at Coburg Hospital. As many as
six at a time were billeted, their occupancy highly ritualised. On Sunday mornings, Heath
would take them to church; after serving the Sunday lunch, they would give a concert in
the rumpus room, into which Heath joined with recitations from Banjo Paterson, Henry
Lawson and Adam Lindsay Gordon. A personal favourite was ‘The Sick Stockrider’:

               I’ve had my share of pastime, and I’ve done my share of toil
               And life is short—the longest life a span;
               I care not now to tarry for the corn or for the oil,
               Or for the wine that maketh glad the heart of man.
               For good undone and gifts misspent and resolutions vain,
               ’Tis somewhat late to trouble. This I know—
               I should live the same life over, if I had to live again;
               And the chances are I go where most men go.

       The offspring would then be placed with wealthy Catholic families through the St
Vincent’s Hospital matron. The scenes as the girls gave up their babies were often heart-
rending, but, Corinne recalls: ‘It had to be done’.

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