Story: Hercus, Charles Ernest

Page 1: Biography

Hercus, Charles Ernest


Doctor, professor of public health

This biography was written by Derek A. Dow and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998

Charles Ernest Hercus was born in Dunedin on 13 June 1888 to Elizabeth Jane Proctor, a native of Toronto, Canada, and her husband, Peter Hercus, a Scots-born warehouseman who had come to New Zealand as a child. Hercus claimed to be of Orcadian and Norse descent. The family later moved to Christchurch and Hercus was educated at Christchurch Boys' High School. In 1908 he enrolled in the first class of the University of Otago's Dental School, and graduated BDS in 1911. The maxillo-facial surgery of Henry Pickerill, first dean of the Dental School and a dual graduate in dentistry and medicine, inspired Hercus to study for his medical degree. He graduated MB, ChB from the University of Otago in 1914.

Hercus was a house surgeon at Christchurch Hospital until the outbreak of the First World War, when he resigned to join the New Zealand Medical Corps; he had previously been a member of the Otago University Medical Corps, which he was later to command. Posted to the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Field Ambulance, he saw active service at Gallipoli and in Palestine, where he became assistant director of medical services to the Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division, with the rank of major from January 1917. Mentioned in dispatches four times and awarded the DSO in 1917, he was made an OBE in 1919.

On the restructuring of the Department of Public Health in 1920 Hercus was appointed one of eight new district health officers, based in Christchurch. His interest in public health seemingly predated the First World War: he was reputedly the only man to go ashore at Gallipoli carrying a microscope. He also assisted in the Christchurch Hospital pathology department and obtained his MD and diploma in public health from Otago in 1921 and 1922. On 6 February 1923, at Johnsonville, he married Isabella Rea Jones; they were to have two sons and two daughters.

In December 1921 Sydney Champtaloup, professor of public health and bacteriology in the University of Otago Medical School, died. The proposed appointment of a candidate with no public health experience caused a furore and Hercus was appointed instead. From the outset the new professor stressed the importance of social and preventive medicine. This emphasis originated in his malaria control work in Palestine, the success of which he later attributed to the 'high standard of intelligence and discipline of the troops' and the use of education as a 'principal weapon'. In April 1921 he and Dr Eleanor Baker published the results of a survey of goitre in almost 15,000 Canterbury schoolchildren. The director general of health, Thomas Valintine, claimed this showed 'very plainly that the greatest encouragement should be given to research work'. A subsequent director general of health, John Hiddlestone, later credited Hercus alone with making government respond to the development of public health in New Zealand.

Hercus also became involved with nursing education. In 1924 his former research associate, now Eleanor Baker McLaglan, reported enthusiastically on Toronto's public health nursing programme. Hercus recommended that a public health nurse undertake this training with a view to setting up a postgraduate nursing course at the University of Otago. The successful candidate was Mary Lambie, a staff nurse at Christchurch Hospital when Hercus was house surgeon. The Otago diploma course was never implemented, but in 1928 Lambie was appointed to head the new postgraduate course for nurses in Wellington.

Hercus was committed to both teaching and research. His students were required to submit dissertations in place of sitting class examinations. These comprised detailed investigations of entire communities or specific public health issues; many were subsequently published in the New Zealand Medical Journal.

In 1937 Hercus was elected unopposed as dean of the Medical School in succession to Henry Lindo Ferguson, who had been grooming him for this post since the mid 1920s. Hercus's contribution to the university extended far beyond his own faculty. With his background in dentistry he proved a useful ally to John Walsh, dean of the Dental School from 1946. The health clinic he promoted to serve students and schoolchildren was intended to expose fifth-year medical students to social, economic and community influences on medical care. It later evolved into the Student Health Service. From the later 1930s he also fought to establish a school of physical education, a development delayed until after the Second World War.

A more than competent researcher himself, Hercus was excited by good research and went out of his way to encourage others. As a member of the élite Clinical Club of Dunedin, formed to bring together the academic and clinical sides of the Medical School, he was instrumental in publicising reports and research advances from around the world. In 1937 he gave his support to the efforts of Michael Watt, the director general of health, to establish the Medical Research Council. He later chaired several of its committees and was instrumental in reactivating hydatids research in 1957.

Hercus was asked in June 1935 to chair the National Health Insurance Investigation Committee set up by the New Zealand Branch of the British Medical Association just prior to the election of the first Labour government. At its inaugural meeting he presented members with an agenda for their deliberations. He also moved that a general practitioner be appointed as a permanent chair. Perhaps influenced, consciously or otherwise, by his Orcadian descent, Hercus nominated Dr J. P. S. Jamieson, a Shetlander, to fill this critical position.

Hercus was knighted in 1947 and received an honorary LLD from his alma mater in 1962. Perhaps the honour that most pleased him was an invitation to give the 1952 Banting Memorial Lecture in recognition of his contributions to endocrinology; the lecture was delivered in his mother's birthplace of Toronto. In 1955 his chair was divided into microbiology and preventive and social medicine. Hercus filled the latter until his retirement in 1958. He was credited with having transformed the medical school into 'a modern institution that achieved a more appropriate balance between teaching and research'.

Throughout his life Hercus was interested in the history of medicine. He encouraged students to incorporate a historical dimension into their public health theses and himself produced an unpublished account of public health in Otago. His primary interest, however, lay in the history of his own institution. In 1964 he and Gordon Bell, emeritus professor of surgery, jointly wrote a history of the Medical School. Two years later Hercus contributed pen portraits of 10 of his predecessors to An encyclopaedia of New Zealand.

Hercus's later years were marred by ill health, though his intellectual capacity was undimmed. He died at Dunedin on 26 March 1971 of a progressive cerebral thrombosis, survived by his wife and three children. A reserved figure, he was very approachable beneath his cloak of shyness, though many colleagues found him rather humourless and ponderous. His energy and determination were attributed to his 'Highland tenacity and evangelical fervour'. These qualities enabled him to live up to the New Zealand Medical Journal's description of him as 'the last of a generation that was expected to and was able to run single-handed a faculty of medicine'.

How to cite this page:

Derek A. Dow. 'Hercus, Charles Ernest', from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 27 March 2017)