Book of Life Stories

Raymond Bayer – First Jewish surgeon to the Antarctic

The Jews living in Egypt in the1950s never imagined that anything detrimental would happen to them; this false sense of security existed because the Chief Rabbi went to school with King Fouad, and they were good friends. However, in 1956 Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel-Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, the key waterway for world trade. The canal, vital to the flow of Gulf oil to the industrialized economies of the West, was now threatened, and likewise the secure life of the Jews was over. Nationalization took the world by surprise, not least the British and French stockholders who owned the Suez Canal Company. They, together with Israel, began plotting to take back the Canal and overthrow Nasser. In Egypt, Jewish directors of companies and shops were arrested. It was time to leave the country.

In 1956 the Bayer’s were living in Cairo and Dr Raymond Bayer had been practicing as a surgeon at one of the largest Jewish Hospitals for some years. Dr Bayer had family in Australia and Mrs Bayer had family in both Israel and France; in fact her mother was already in Israel with her two brothers. The family in Australia sent them landing permits. They left with the assistance of HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), an American organization, stopping off in Israel on route to Australia. Dr Bayer immediately started working as a surgeon in a hospital in Israel.

When the Bayer’s emigrated to Australia in 1957, it soon was clear that Dr Bayers qualifications from Egypt were not recognized in this country, and he could not perform as a medical practitioner. Needing money to support his family, and armed with the refugee’s determination to do anything to succeed, he was prepared to accept any position. When a vacancy as a clerk in the Post Office came up, he found that his degrees were more than adequate. One can imagine the interview: “Are you educated enough to put letters in the correct boxes? What are your skills?” “I am a doctor”. “Fine, we’ll take you”.

Working alongside him was a qualified Engineer from Germany (“What are your qualifications to work in the Post Office Sir?” “I am an Engineer”. “Good, we will take you too”). His colleague told to him that he had read in a German newspaper of an Antarctic expedition looking for a doctor. Initially, Raymond thought it was a crazy idea, but soon realized that it was an excellent opportunity to earn a living in his profession, he applied for the job. He had to have his appendix removed first, as a safety requirement.

“I haven’t had much chance to see my new country,” he said before he left.

In November 1957, after a hard four-week training course under the guidance of the expedition director, he boarded a Scandinavian boat, the Thala Dan, destined for the Antarctic. He was to return 12 months later when the boat made its way back to collect the people it had dropped off. During the winter months it was impossible to cut through the ice and therefore the journey could only take place in summer. All the expeditioners were university graduates, scientists, marine biologists, and meteorologists, except for the Hungarian cook. They loved his food. Bayer was the only doctor.

Dr R Bayer is pictured on the far left, standing

Communication with loved ones was difficult and rare, and the family treasured little snippets of information about the expedition. A newspaper clipping dated July 18 1958 with the headline “Operation in Antarctic” has been framed and is on display in the home. It tells of an emergency operation for acute appendicitis performed in the Antarctic: “Dr R Bayer of Adelaide, operated on Mr H Knox, 35, married, of Kinglake, Victoria, a wireless operator at the Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition station at Macquarie Island. Dr Bayer was assisted by the officer in charge of the station (Maj. F Baines) a radio officer, and a diesel mechanic.” The operation was performed on a kitchen table. The grateful Mr Knox later sent a bunch of flowers to the Bayer home in Adelaide to thank him for saving his life.

Dr R Bayer is shown operating on a patient, 2nd from the left

Bayer’s widow remembers a phone call that she received from a stranger who told her that he had spoken to her husband. His name was Bill Randall. With his large antennae and radio equipment, by chance he made contact with Macquarie Island. He must have said that he lived in Port Adelaide, and the radio operator must have replied that they had a doctor from Adelaide in the Antarctic. Amused by the coincidence, Randall phoned Mrs Bayer and invited her and her son Daniel, then age 5, to come for tea, and to talk to Raymond. Bill Randall got more than he bargained for when the entire family, not only wife and son, but also brothers, parents and a friend, arrived at his home for the unique chance to speak to Raymond.

Some thirty years after the Expedition, Senator Robert Hill, Minister for the Environment and Heritage, Parliament House, Canberra, presented a Medallion to Mrs Bayer. It was awarded to the late Raymond Bayer in recognition of his service with the Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition (ANARE) at Macquarie Island during 1958.

Gold Medallion
Inscription Front: Commonwealth of Australia, Antarctic Division, Ray Bayer, 1958
Inscription Back: Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions, Macquarie Island

The Howard Government decided retrospectively to award the medallion to expeditioners whose service and sacrifices had previously not been sufficiently recognized. The expeditioners had faced long absences from family and friends in an isolated, harsh and potentially dangerous environment. At last, these pioneers were recognized for the valuable part they played in the Australian Antarctic effort.

Written by R Sugarman following interviews with J Bayer, June 2002.

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