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.


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.

The building in Chicago where a bogus medical school was established.
Fort Dearborn Bank, Chicago.

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.

Dr Ratten's home in Sheffield.


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.

Captain Victor Ratten, 1914

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.

Dr Victor Ratten, who obtained  bogus medical diploma in Chicago.
Dr Victor Ratten, pictured outside the Hobart General Hospital.

What happened to William Gayle French? Ah, that’s another story!



  1. I am please to see you return to work on your magnus opossum, Pauline. 🙂

    Without wishing to overcomplicate the book, I’m wondering if you plan to compare with that other ‘Tasmanian’, King O’Malley?

    keep writing!


    • Pauline

      Haha, a thousand times no, Dennis. This man’s life is so complex on its own! Yes, finally back into it. Half way mark I’d say.

  2. Shocking and horrifying. I wonder how many other quacks were practising at that time.

    • Pauline

      Too many, Annabelle. If you were charismatic and had friends in high places you could get way with anything.

  3. A few years back there was a scandal in Bundaberg General Hospital in Queensland when a man( not an Australian), masqueraded for some time as a medical doctor. He was in charge of the large, public hospital. His ‘botched’ surgery and the sometimes terrible outcomes alarmed the nursing and other medical staff so much that they reported it to the medical association at great cost for being ‘whistle blowers’. It’s terrible when people from other countries can bluff their way into top positions and careers by falsifying documents. I think it a wise move for anyone with foreign university qualifications to be asked to attend a university in Australia and complete a qualifying year in their selected field. It may mean the difference between life and death for trusting patients and other consumers.

    • Pauline

      Yes, it still happens, Heather. Are you back in Oz now? I saw your message, but now I can’t find it!

  4. Fascinating post. Your research and knowledge is amazing.

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