Publish Date

8 May 2022

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When doctors Alastair and Dorothy Cole first headed to north Queensland in the 1950s with their baby daughter, they mistakenly thought they had applied for jobs at Mt Morgan near Rockhampton.

Though their destination turned out to be Mount Isa, another 1300km northwest, their adventurous spirit was undimmed. They would return to the north from Warrnambool in 1971 and make a lasting mark on rural and regional health over the next four decades, Alastair as head of Townsville Hospital and Dorothy as a general practitioner with a passion for social justice and the environment.

The Cole family and their friends gathered in Townsville in late 2021 to pay tribute to Alastair after his death at age 95 and remember the legacy he and Dorothy built.

Dorothy, who died in 2010 aged 81, taught for many years at James Cook University, delivering a core subject titled Health for Social Workers. In 2005, the University awarded her an honorary doctorate of letters for outstanding service to the northern Queensland community and exceptional contributions to the advancement of human wellbeing.

Doctors Ian, Alastair and Benjamin Cole at Ben's graduation from JCU in 2015.

Ten years later, the Coles’ grandson Benjamin graduated from JCU as a fourth-generation doctor. He completes his training in Intensive Care Medicine at Gold Coast University Hospital in early 2024. Ben’s father, Dr Ian Cole, a University of Queensland graduate, is a Cairns general practitioner who lectures and tutors JCU fifth-year medical students and does External Clinical Teaching visits with JCU GP registrars several times a year.

Head of JCU’s Townsville Clinical School, Professor Tarun Sen Gupta, a GP, worked with Dr Cole in Richmond in the late 1980s when Dr Cole was the relieving flying surgeon after his retirement from Queensland Health.

“I well remember his outstanding surgical skills, his communication skills and his compassion,” Professor Sen Gupta says. “As we move through the 21st century, we should remember the Coles and other pioneers of medicine in north Queensland who set the foundation for the system we have today.”

Alastair served in the Royal Australian Navy in World War II as a mid-shipman, motoring up and down the coast on the HMAS Maryborough destroying mines. As ship’s commander, he stayed on after the war to supervise the demobilising of the HMAS Maryborough. He left the Navy in 1947 to study medicine at The University of Melbourne’s Mildura campus. One of his classmates was his future wife, Dorothy Bailhache.

Grey-haired man smiling with arm around wife
1950s black and white photo of well-dressed couple in front of car
Doctors Alastair and Dorothy Cole made a combined contribution to health and equity in the Townsville region. (Photos: supplied)

Marrying two days after graduation, the Coles practised medicine in Melbourne, Mount Isa and the Mornington Peninsula. In the early 1960s, they sailed on ocean liner SS Arcadia to the UK with their four children, Anne, Sue, Ian and Malcolm, all aged under five. Alastair spent the next three years training as a surgeon in Edinburgh, Scotland and Northampton, England, where he received his Scottish and English Surgical Fellowships.

The family returned to Australia in 1963, with Alastair taking a role as a general surgeon in the regional Victorian city of Warrnambool and Dorothy recommencing her medical career as a General Practitioner.

In 1971, just days before Alastair took up the role of Surgical Supervisor at the Townsville General Hospital, Cyclone Althea blew the roof off the Coles’ newly purchased home, fortunately covered by insurance. Alastair served as Medical Superintendent of the hospital from 1975 until 1987, specialising in burns and establishing the first burns unit in North Queensland.

Dorothy had a solo practice in Belgian Gardens for many years and was one of only three women in general practice in Townsville in the early 1970s. A tireless advocate for women’s health and reproductive rights, she helped establish Townsville's first women's shelter, a fertility control practice, and a rape crisis centre.  She was also involved in setting up the Townsville Aboriginal and Islander Health Service in 1980, serving as its only doctor in its early days.

The Coles’ interests also extended to literature with the purchase of Townsville’s Mary Who? book shop in 1983, run by daughter Sue.

We acknowledge and applaud Dr Alastair and Dr Dorothy Cole's combined contribution to health and equity in the Townsville region. Their legacy lives on here within our College.

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