Dr Albert Coates was a remarkable man. He was also an idealistic, highly experienced and dedicated surgeon when he enlisted for service in WW2. His experience included service in WW1. His life story is an inspiration for every Australian.
Aged 47 years Coates was appointed Senior Surgeon, 8th Division, Australian Army Medical Corps with the rank of Lt. Colonel on 1 January 1941. He was posted to 2/10th Australian General Hospital stationed at Malacca, Malaya.
It was not long before Coates was a POW of the Japanese.
‘Coates saved more POW’s lives than any of the other doctors in the prison camps, through his use of improvised techniques and amputations. Many more were saved by his leadership, encouragement and example. To the brutalised POW’s he was simply known as Bertie.’
‘Albert Coates reflected that his greatest work was done in the appalling conditions of the Prisoner-of War camps on the Thai-Burma Railway.’
As a young child Albert finished school at 11 years of age and apprenticed to a butcher for whom he had already worked weekends and before school. This job lasted until Albert accidently damaged the butcher’s cart. Albert was one of seven children brought up at Mt Pleasant, Ballarat. He was a gifted student and developed an ambition for a career in medicine. To get into university at that time you had to study in church schools or through independent teachers.
Albert was fortunate to join the Ballarat Litho and Printing Company and indentured as a book binder at six shillings a week. This allowed him to attend night school and for a very low fee engage a former teacher to coach him, eventually gaining five distinctions in the 1913 Junior Public Examination. This qualified him for enrolment at Melbourne University.
As he could not afford to take his place at university, Albert moved to Wangaratta, working in the Postal Department and studying in his spare time.
By 1914 Coates was in a position to start medical school. His plans however were put aside when WW1 broke out and the idealistic 19 year old enlisted as a medical orderly attached to 7th Battalion 1st A.I.F., spending his time on-board ship heading to Europe assisting the doctor inoculating men against typhoid.
His first destination was Egypt. Encamped at Mena, Cario Albert’s main task was transporting medical supplies and wounded in a horse drawn cart. He was also able to continue his love of languages and enrolled at the Berlitz School. He began studying and learning German on the ship’s voyage from Australia. In Egypt he included Arabic. He studied Latin and French at school.
In April 1915 Coates was on board one of the ships at Gallipoli and watched horrified as the men in the first landings were cut down. He was later at the Somme performing his medical duties in the gas warfare and trenches. It was here his linguistic ability was recognised and was soon transferred to Army intelligence as the Battalion’s interpreter.
He took leave from France and travelled to Australia returning to Europe soon after with other Anzacs in October 1918. The war ended a few weeks later on November 11.
Following the end of WW1 Coates returned to Victoria, finally enrolling to study medicine between 1919 and 1924. However it was necessary to continue employment with the Post Office working at Spencer Street from 10pm to 6.00am!
In 1924 he was offered the Stewart Lectureship in anatomy, an opportunity for further study and develop his teaching ability.
Albert gained his Doctor of Medicine degree in 1926 and Master of Surgery in 1927 and was appointed Honorary Surgeon to Outpatients at the Melbourne Hospital the same year.
Throughout the depression years his work load in outpatients and emergency surgery was extraordinarily heavy and Coates earned recognition for his work and teaching.
His interest in neurosurgery took him overseas in the mid 1930’s. On his return Coates assisted to set up a neurosurgical unit. By 1940 a group of surgeons and Albert established the Neurosurgical Society of Australia.
Dr Claude Anderson of the 2/4th, fondly known as ‘Pills’ assisted Albert Coates with about 60 amputations, some of which were 2/4th men. (Basil William James Clarke WX9136).
The Japanese sent trained Surgeon Dr. Albert Coates from 105 kilo to 55 kilo camp to Kohnkan to establish a 1800 bed hospital camp for men up the line who were too sick to work.
Coates was very ill a the time with scrub-typhus and had to be assisted to stand.
Bamboo huts were constructed. A small operating theatre was built to the side furnished with a bamboo table for surgery. The floors were dirt and the roof made of thatched palm.
There was no equipment, supplies nor beds. With no proper instruments Coates and his team improvised with a few artery forceps, scalpels and sharpened table knives for amputations. They used bent forks for retractors, a kitchen saw and darning needles. The Japanese jokingly gave them a curette. Coates had a spinal needle which he used to give anaesthetics. There was no general anaesthesia for small procedures such as small amputations (toes) nor cleaning of ulcers (3 men would hold down the patient to clean the wound with spoon, knife, etc).
As soon as Coates was sufficiently well he commenced work; performing a wide range of surgery including tracheostomy for diphtheria, ileostomy for toxic amoebic dysentery, strangulated hernia reduction and complications of the ever present tropical ulcer. Coates performed 120 amputations for gangrenous lower limbs and sometimes more than 50 men a day would have ulcers curetted.
Dr John Gibbon was initially the only doctor to assisting Coates until Claude Anderson arrived.
Coates could always be heard saying to the sick
“Your ticket home is in the bottom of your dixie”
“Every time it is filled with rice – eat it. If you vomit it up again, eat some more; even if it comes up again some good will remain. If you get a bad egg, eat it no matter how bad it may appear. An egg is only bad when the stomach won’t hold it.”