TO CHICAGO – A MEDICAL MISSION
On September 3 1906, a wealthy young dentist from Brisbane boarded the passenger ship Aorangi. He disembarked in Vancouver, then entered the United States and made his way to Chicago by train. His name was Victor Richard Ratten.
Soon after he arrived in Chicago, Victor met up with a 21 year old ‘medico’ called William Gayle French. The pair had concocted an ingenious (and devious) plan for Victor Ratten to obtain a medical diploma. It had probably been organized well before Victor left Australia. Chicago had a reputation at the time as the ‘plague spot’ of America for ‘diploma mill’ colleges and fake medical certificates.
THE TEACHING HOSPITAL IN A BANK
Here is how French’s scam worked. There had once been a legitimate college in Chicago called The Harvey Medical College. It conducted evening courses for working class men and women. When the college closed in 1905 the building in Clark Street was demolished and in its place rose the seventeen storey Fort Deerborn Bank.
William French rented a room at the bank and registered a fake medical college with a very similar name; The Harvey Medical College and Hospital. The capital listed was $3,000, probably put up by Victor Ratten.
While the fake diploma was being organized,Victor took time out for some rather bizarre sightseeing. The previous year, Upton Sinclair had published his novel The Jungle, a best selling expose of corruption and unsanitary practices at the Chicago meatworks. Sinclair wrote of horrors such as cholera infected hogs being processed and sold as potted meat. The vast packing house became a ghoulish tourist attraction, which Victor visited on two occasions. Ironically, his second visit was in company with ‘a fellow medico’, probably William Gayle French. It is fair to say that the only demonstrations of anatomy and dissection Victor witnessed in Chicago took place at the meatworks!
Nevertheless, Victor’s diploma, dated March 9 1907, recorded scores of 99% and 98% for his two surgery subjects. This was the area of medicine he would be interested in for the rest of his life. He scored in the eighties for all other subjects. a truly remarkable achievement. When the diploma was printed, the final two words of French’s bogus college, ‘and Hospital’ were left off. Victor Ratten was thus presented as a graduate of the original Harvey Medical College. The address of Clark Street was correct, the diploma looked authentic….perfect!
After touring Europe, including a visit to the casino at Monte Carlo, Victor returned to Australia with his fake diploma. He sold his lucrative dental practice in Brisbane, married a local beauty, and moved to Tasmania, one of only two Australian states where a legitimate American qualification was accepted.
He set up practice in the small rural town of Sheffield. Locals would joke that his arrival coincided with an ‘epidemic’ of appendicitis, and that he perfected his skill with the scalpel by removing the appendix of rabbits. However, the first patient he operated on was a small boy who had caught his hand in his father’s harvester. Dr Ratten amputated the little fellow’s finger. Before long the new doctor was building an impressive residence and surgery in the main street.
He also built a state-of-the-art private hospital. Here he operated on victims of the most catastrophic farm injuries. I can only assume that he had a natural ability for surgery. Dr Ratten was much loved by the community. He had a charismatic personality and was an accomplished sportsman. In 1914 he volunteered for service in World War One, becoming Regimental Medical Officer to the Tasmanian 12th Battalion.
His military career, and indeed the rest of his life, were extremely controversial. However, he would eventually become Surgeon Superintendent of Tasmania’s largest public hospital. He collected antiques, owned race horses, and drove a Rolls Royce.
Meanwhile, the situation in Chicago had not really improved. An advertisement from a city newspaper in 1922 read;
ANYONE, Anywhere – You can easily learn to be a doctor; we give you easy lessons by mail and give you a beautiful diploma.We teach you to treat all kinds of sickness. You can open a doctor’s office in your own home and earn $5,000 yearly. For particulars, Address UNIVERSITY, 4248 COTTAGE GROVE, CHIGAGO ILL.
What happened to William Gayle French? Ah, that’s another story!
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