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Light shed on doctor

Wednesday, 9th April, 2014

Dr Melville Birks’ family members (from left) Margaret Broomby, John Birks, Sarah Ryan, Melissa Birks, David Birks and Andrew Birks in Broken Hill yesterday. Dr Melville Birks’ family members (from left) Margaret Broomby, John Birks, Sarah Ryan, Melissa Birks, David Birks and Andrew Birks in Broken Hill yesterday.

By Nick Gibbs

A former Broken Hill Hospital Chief Superintendent and champion of workers’ rights was recognised at a ceremony at the Broken Hill Trades hall yesterday.

Dr Melville Birks worked tirelessly in the city between 1913 and 1923, a critical period when medical resources were stretched during the war and the battle for fair working conditions was fierce.

Family members were in Broken Hill yesterday to present the Trades Hall Trust with a document addressed to Dr Birk on behalf of the Barrier Industrial and Political Council.

Expressed in the letter were deep sentiments from what would soon become the Barrier Industrial Council (BIC) after illness forced Dr Birk into retirement.

“When ill health compelled you to leave the Barrier, we knew that we had lost a true friend and a strong and able advocate,” it stated.

After travelling to Melbourne for treatment, the doctor passed away in his childhood city of Adelaide in 1924.

His grandson David Birks said the family had been delving into local history during the period of his grandfather, but reported finding less information than they had hoped.

“Melville had a particular interest in industrial illnesses,” he said, highlighting the plight of miners in BH at the time, especially in relation to lead poising.

“He was also a great supporter of the workers,” he added, guessing the stance may have put him in opposition to management and contributed to his scarce mention in local records.

“That may have been why he appears to have been airbrushed from history as far as we’re concerned.”

From his father’s recollection as a child in BH, David was able to give several insights into Melville’s time in the city.

He was on hand to treat the victims when the Picnic Train was attacked in 1915 and narrowly avoided being among the victims as the family travelled on a subsequent carriage.

“It was much to my dad’s disgust as he had looked forward to this picnic for some time,” David said of his father’s reaction.

Dr Birks attempted to join the WWI effort himself but was denied due to his necessity to the local hospital.

The scarcity of health professions in the city at the time meant he often shouldered more than his share of the workload, something David felt may have contributed to his premature death at the age of 48.

“I can’t help but feel his workload contributed,” he said, reporting that his grandfather once endured a seven month stretch working night and day without relief.

Barrier Industrial Council president Danny O’Connor thanked the Birks family for the donation and joined them in honouring Melville’s efforts as a crusader for the worker.

“It will take pride of place, all I can say is thank you,” he said.

“We’re so proud to have someone like this in our history.”

Local CMFEU president Greg Braes joined Mr O’Connor in thanking the family and said Dr Birks had certainly helped restrict the number of mining casualties in the city.

“I’m sure if it wasn’t for Dr Birks, there would be a lot more names up there,” he said speaking of the people who died working the mines of BH listed on the Miner’s Memorial.

A selection of memorabilia was also donated to the BH Hospital and accepted by Chief Executive of the Far West Health Network, Stuart Riley.

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