70 years of family practice
From rural South Australia to the jungles of Bougainville, in war and in peacetime, one talented husband-and-wife team have spent over 70 years dedicated to improving the health - and lives - of others.
Their names might not be well-known - but University of Adelaide graduates Jim and Phillipa Nicholls have been making a significant, if unsung, impact on the health and wellbeing of South Australians for seven decades.
This year marks a major milestone for the husband-and-wife GPs - the 70th anniversary of their graduation from the University of Adelaide.
In the decades that have passed since completing their MBBS degrees, Phillipa and Jim - now both 93 - have worked tirelessly side by side as medical practitioners, mostly in remote parts of the State.
Their shared journey began in 1938, when Unley High School student Margaret Phillipa Gardiner - better known as `Phil' - was awarded a scholarship to the University of Adelaide, winning a place beside her then-future husband Jim Herschel Nicholls.
The University was a different place in the early 1940s: classes were small - there were just seven graduating students in the Nicholls's MBBS degree - and elaborate practical jokes were common. Tardy students, the Nicholls's recall, would often return to their campus bedroom only to find their bed swinging from a crane outside the under-construction RAH building. Sir William Mitchell presided as Chancellor, and peckish undergrads would often nip across to the Botanic Gardens to `borrow' the vegetables planted there in wartime.
Contemporaries of the Nicholls's included neurosurgeon Trevor `Jim' Dinning, Kathleen Anderson and Ruth Lyons, with teaching staff including Sir Trent De Crespigny, who was brought back to lecture during the war due to a shortage of staff, and Professor Donald Kerr Grant, Head of Physics.
Studying side by side in a tight-knit class, the two undergraduates were officially `romantically serious' by their fifth and final year, and married shortly after graduating.
Like so many families during the period, the Second World War was soon to separate the newlyweds. Jim was called to duty in 1944 - just a day after the couple's first child, Jeffery, was born, the new father and graduate was en route to the PNG battlefield.
As the sole Medical Officer to the 15th Infantry Battalion, Jim was deployed in the jungles of Bougainville during the closing years of WWII. Despite only being qualified as a GP, Jim quickly put his medical education to use on wounded soldiers, performing everything from amputations to appendectomies.
After the surrender of the Japanese in 1945, Jim and Phillipa were reunited in Australia and established their small family practice in Mount Gambier. Initially joining the general practice of Dr Jack Willis in Ferrers Street, it wasn't long before the husband-and-wife team were working on their own across South Australia's remote country towns.
Over the next 28 years, the Nicholls's worked as GPs in Mount Gambier, Mannum and Minlaton, which has now become a University of Adelaide practice. The late 1940s and early 1950s were a time when doctors were in short supply, particularly in the more remote regions, and the pair quickly found themselves in demand.
Jim and Phillipa took the fast-growing medical practice in their stride, encompassing surgical procedures alongside the everyday work of general practitioners. Phillipa would act as the anaesthetist and assistant, with Jim conducting treatment and surgery.
The Nicholls's also found time to have eleven children - five boys and six girls - Jeffery, William, Andrew, Philip (LLB 1972, M Env St 1997, PhD (H&SS), 2002), Therese, Janet, Sue (BDS 1980), Rosalind (BA (Hons)), Tim, Catherine (M Sc) and Pamela. In the 1970s, Phillipa also ran her own medical practice in Trinity Gardens, with her growing children ranging from 8 to 23 years old.
With a successful professional life - and marriage - spanning seven decades, the Nicholls's legacy of service is testament to the enormous benefits of enduring partnerships. ■
Story by Lana Guineay