Harold Keith McComb, MBBS
1924 - 2012
Harold McComb was born in Brisbane in 1924, son of Rowland McComb, a Gallipoli veteran and senior administrator in the Commonwealth Department of Civil Aviation and Kathleen Clare Earnshaw.
Following his graduation from the University of Melbourne in 1947, Harold began his medical career at Royal Melbourne Hospital where, working under the guidance of pioneer plastic surgeon Sir Benjamin Rank, he developed a passion for plastic surgery.
In 1953 his potential as a surgeon was recognised by the prestigious Nuffield Foundation with a scholarship to undertake two years specialist training at Oxford,UK. After just three months at the university however, he was offered a position as a consultant plastic surgeon at the Royal Perth Hospital. Without the option of taking leave from the hospital to finish his studies, his Oxford teachers stepped in to accelerate Harold’s training. With their assistance he was able to complete his training within nine months and was able to return to Perth in 1954 as a consultant at Royal Perth and Princess Margaret Hospital for Children.
Harold was the first fully trained plastic surgeon to work in Western Australia. He filled the position created by the distinguished war veteran and surgeon Leslie Le Souef, who had established plastic and traumatic units at Royal Perth and Princess Margaret Hospital for Children.
Although in those days Consultants were not paid, many eminent members of Perth’s medical fraternity worked without payment in public hospitals. Rather than lamenting his lack of remuneration Harold regarded his appointment as a Consultant as a privilege. An innovator from his arrival, he designed beds that could be turned into watertight ‘boxes’ and filled with water to allow burns patients to be bathed in their own beds to eliminate the risk of cross infection. His contribution to the development of SSD cream at PMH was said to revolutionise the management of patients in the Burns Unit there – as well as in other hospitals.
Treating burns patients was just one aspect of Harold’s work. While repair of hand injuries and deformities, correction of prominent ears, removal of birth marks and revision of scars all contributed to his routine surgeries, cleft lip and palate surgery was his major love.
In addition to lip and palate repairs, Harold pioneered the correction of cleft lip nose which he regarded as one of the worst deformities of the cleft lip. With his team, he developed a technique that corrected the nasal deformity and the lip defect at the same time. His results were so successful that following publication, the techniques were adopted worldwide, as were those using bone grafts to fill the alveolar gap associated with cleft palates.
Outside the operating theatre, Harold was instrumental in establishing the first Combined Clinic in Australia for children with facial clefts. This clinic offered the opportunity for patients to be reviewed by all specialists in the Facio-maxillary team at the same time – rather than having to attend additional appointments at the hospital on different days as they had previously.
A member of the Court of Examiners of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, Harold was highly regarded in Perth – being appointed to the Royal Perth Hospital from 1954 to 1979, to Princess Margaret Hospital for Children from 1955 to 1989 and Fremantle Hospital from 1955 to 1965.
A long term member of the board of directors of Interplast Australia (1993-2001), Harold was devoted to children and adults with cleft deformities in many developing countries of South East Asia and the Pacific. He understood the importance of training surgeons in their own environment and participated regularly in missions.
Training future plastic surgeons both home and abroad was also very important to Harold. As the plastic surgeon for aid programs under the Colombo Plan, his journey to Madura, India in 1964 heralded a long running program designed to train local medical teams in Afghanistan, Papua-New Guinea, Vanuatu, Mauritius, Indonesia, Tuvalu, Fiji, Vietnam and Laos to repair cleft deformities.
From his early days, Harold played a pivotal role in training future generations of plastic surgeons in Perth. He taught that ‘we are first and foremost to be compassionate, competent doctors, and secondarily plastic surgeons’. He was an expert observer who quickly recognised a sick child and responded to his patients’ and their family’s needs.
Artistically innovative and technically gifted, he led by example, demanding excellence in results. The current cohort of skilled Perth trained plastic surgeons owe much to the surgical legacy of Harold McComb.
Whilst not one for accolades, Harold greatly valued his “Distinguished Honorary Fellowship of the American Association of Plastic Surgeons” – a peer endowed award in recognition of his global contribution to the challenge of treating Cleft Lip and Palate. He was, at the time, one of only four non-American recipients in the world.
Harold’s life outside surgery was punctuated by family, a relentless thirst for knowledge and a capacity to engage with people in the pursuit of life challenges.
Married to Dr Athel Hockey (a medical school colleague and prominent Genetecist), the McComb’s had four sons, all of whom achieve greatly in their fields of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Agriculture, Education and Music.
Harold had a broadacres farm in Hopetoun producing wool, sheep and grain crops. Remotely located, he achieved a commercial flying licence enabling him to fly to the farm. In latter years he returned to University to study Geology and better understand the physical world. He was an artistic painter, underwater diver, photographer and competitive sailor.
Amongst his most endearing personal assets were his interest in people, his captivating array of stories and his endless supply of jokes. He was an exemplary world citizen and a much admired mentor for so many Australian plastic surgeons. He is sadly missed , but his spirit remains.
Anthony Baker, MBBS