Dr Irma Frommer

My last blog posting examined the life of Hungarian refugee medic Dr. Jean (Eugene) Frommer and his work attending to wounded soldiers in China during the Sino-Japanese War. His wife, Dr. Irma Frommer, was also a Hungarian refugee and medical professional. She was hired by Hong Kong’s Medical Services Department in 1940 to replace Dr. Fehily, a Russian emigre who worked as the Lady Medical Officer (maternity and child welfare) under Dr. Sewlyn-Clarke from 1939 – 1940.

Colonial Office papers from 1940 reveal considerations such as nationality, pay scales (linked to nationality) and the centrality of the local Medical Register. One Colonial Official writes that:

This must be the ‘Jewish emigre’ referred to in a letter dated 31.5.1940 addressed to Sir Wilson Jameson from Mrs. Fehily, which I have enclosed in her P.F.

As Mr. Blake says, Fehily was a Russian (on both sides) so that we need hardly take exception to the Hungarian origin of Dr. Frommer as long as she is qualified to practice in Hong Kong.

The D.M.S. is satisfied that she is competent to carry out the duties required of her. But they propose to pay her a very low rate of salary and I do not know how this is altogether satisfactory. But I suppose we had better agree? and as well to the creation of an additional appointment of a Chinese woman Medical Officer.

Colonial Office officials were clearly appalled at the low salary offered to Dr. Frommer (at $4,500 PA compared to Dr. Fehily’s $7,500), with one civil servant describing the wage as ‘exploitation’. The Chinese woman Medical Officer’s salary was even lower, at $2,400, paid for by savings made from Dr. Frommer’s low rate of pay. In the event, Dr. Frommer accepted the modest salary and started work in Hong Kong in August 1940.

 

Dr Jean (Eugene) Frommer

Jewish doctors were among the first targets of Nazi persecution when in April 1933 restrictions were placed on the number of physicians in German National Health Insurance practices. Deprived of their profession at home, physicians sought to enter the medical practice abroad, mainly in Britain and the United States. It was a task complicated by regulations that gave local doctors certain privileges. In Britain for example, ‘alien’ doctors needed to study and re-qualify but this did not automatically confer the right to practise nor did it mean a place on the General Medical Council register. Humanitarian support from individuals in Britain sat uneasily with restrictionism from professional bodies such as the Medical Practitioner’s Union which took an anti-alien line for fear of foreign competition.

In Hong Kong, as in Australia and Canada, refugee physicians were also met with anti-competitive legislation. Medical practitioners seeking to register and practise in the British colony needed to adhere to the Medical Registration Ordinance (1935). The ordinance gave preference to degree holders and professors from the University of Hong Kong and persons already registered in British dominions. For foreign doctors holding degrees, licences or diplomas from Europe, the United States or Japan, their qualifications needed to be recognized as ‘entitling to registration by the General Council of Medical Education and Registration of the United Kingdom.’ According to the 1939 Register of Medical and Surgical Practitioners, there were no European medical practitioners registered in Hong Kong except those who had qualified in Italy, with whom Britain had reciprocal medical qualification arrangements. The majority of Hong Kong’s registered physicians therefore qualified in Hong Kong or in England and Scotland, although there was also a sizeable minority with qualifications from Japan.

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Aid to China Must Go On, China Defence League newsletter, 1 October 1939

One of the few European Jewish refugee physicians to secure a place on Hong Kong’s medical register in the 1930s was Dr Jean (Eugene) Frommer, a Hungarian physician. He was able to do so as a graduate of the University of Pisa in Italy, which as we have seen had a reciprocal arrangement with Hong Kong. Dr Frommer practised in Florence until anti-Semitic legislation forced him to seek refuge in the Far East. After his arrival in Hong Kong, Dr Frommer worked as a surgeon in hospitals for wounded Chinese soldiers in China, on which he reported: ‘the Chinese soldiers are more courageous than European troops. I could perform operations without using anaesthetics. In the interior their morale is excellent and they are not only holding their ground but are driving the Japanese back’. Dr Frommer was sent by the South West China Relief Organisation to Kangchow, Kiangsi to bring back Rewi Alley, a New Zealander and adviser to the Chinese Industrial Co-operatives, who was suffering from typhoid. He also worked at the Cue Lup Hospital at Shekki, where ambulances full of wounded soldiers came rolling in from the front every day: ‘the Japanese have tried three times to occupy Shekki, burning villages and bombing civilians as well as troops. But wounded soldiers coming into hospital have refused operations in order to get back to the front line again. One soldier with a bullet lodged in his hip flatly refused to have it removed by an operation as he said it would keep him too long away from the front’. On three occasions Japanese planes came to Shekki whilst Dr Frommer was stationed there.

According to the Biographical Dictionary of Medical Practitioners in Hong Kong, Dr Frommer opened his own private practice in Kowloon in 1941. He was married to Iram Frommer, Lady Medical Officer for the Hong Kong Government and also a Hungarian Jewish refugee.

Further reading

  1. Hong Kong Medical Registration Ordinance (1935)
  2. Collins, Kenneth, ‘European Refugee Physicians in Scotland, 1933-1943’, Social History  of Medicine 22 (2009)

 

Refugee Physicians and the Aid China Movement

In the 1930s Hong Kong was used as base for Communist and Nationalist activities in support of China’s plight against the Japanese. One key organisation in this fight was the China Defence League (CDL) established in 1938 and presided over by Madame Soong Ching-ling, Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s widow, the leader of the 1911 Revolution and the founder of the Chinese Republic. The CDL was in many ways an embodiment of the internationalist nature of the Free China movement in Hong Kong; with Chinese, New Zealanders, British and Americans working together on the CDL committee. The main function of the CDL was to provide medical and other forms of relief to the fighting fronts in China, particularly the guerilla areas set up behind Japanese lines by the Communists. With the help of leftist committees in Britain, Norway and the CDL in Hong Kong, 17 European doctors were recruited into the Medical Relief Corps (MRC) of the Chinese Red Cross. Known locally as the ‘Spanish doctors’ thanks to their work in the International Brigades in Spain, they were actually Jewish refugee volunteers who had escaped Nazism from Germany, Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Romania. They joined hundreds of young medical school graduates from China and the Chinese diaspora to bring relief to China’s soldiers.

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Members of the China Defence League. From left: Israel Epstein, Deng Wenzhao, Liao Mengxing, Soong Ching Ling, Hilda Selwyn-Clarke, Norman France and Liao Chenzhi. Photo courtesy of China.org

 

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Walter Freudmann (middle) was one of the so-called ‘Spanish doctors’ who worked in the Medical Relief Corps in China. Photo courtesy of DOW.

 

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Bishop Ronald Hall, photo courtesy of Christopher Hall

Hilda Selwyn-Clarke, a British Leftist, was integral to the recruitment of these Jewish refugees. She became involved as the CDL’s Honourary Secretary soon after moving from London to Hong Kong in 1938, and was known as ‘Red Hilda’ as much for her vibrant hair colour as her political sympathies. She was married to Dr. Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke, the new Director of Medical Services, and the husband and wife duo formed part of a small coterie of western liberal progressives who supported the resistance efforts in China. Sympathy for China was pervasive in Britain’s political leftist circles, but also prevalent amongst Christian groups. The Anglican Bishop of Hong Kong, Ronald O. Hall, was highly active in providing aid to Chinese refugees and was also involved in the Chinese Red Cross. Much like Madame Soong and the Selwyn-Clarkes, he recruited Jewish refugees in China in support of the Free China movement, placing physicians in missionary hospitals and refugee camps across his See, which extended beyond Hong Kong and into southern China. Hall employed refugees such as Dr. Karl Hans Fritz Harth, who had a background in law and took charge of the Chinese Red Cross in Haiphong. He Anglicized his name to ‘Charles John Frederick Harth’ and converted to Anglicanism, later becoming secretary to Hall and warden of the Church Guest House in Hong Kong. He courageously defended St John’s Cathedral and its treasures during the Japanese Occupation of Hong Kong.

At the cessation of hostilities in 1945 some Jewish refugee physicians stayed on in China, whilst others went on to new missions in South East Asia or rebuilt their lives in Europe, America and Australia.