Darwin doctor Albert Foreman still has a passion for medicine at 91

Every surface is busy and the mix of objects is eclectic: a crocodile skull, a wooden sculpture of a bird of paradise, a trio of arrows, a large black and white photo of a Papua New Guinean in great outfit.

The walls are a mosaic of posters, artwork, newspaper clippings and personal photographs taken on a Kodak Retina purchased from a Darwin store in 1957.

If it weren’t for the anatomical diagrams of the ears and nose, the many framed diplomas, and the medical instruments among it all, this little suburban doctor’s office might be mistaken for a museum.

Dr. Albert Foreman, 91, in his Darwin office on or around July 8, 2022.(ABC News: Tristan Hooft)
Old photo of a train track near Alice Springs
Dr Foreman’s work has taken him across the Northern Territory, Alice Springs (above) and Darwin and remote communities in between.(Provided: Albert Foreman)

Everything here has a story, just like the owner of the office, Dr. Albert Foreman.

As a general practitioner with a particular interest in the ears, nose and throat, Dr Foreman has scrutinized the ears of thousands of Territorians and, at 91, is probably one of Australia’s oldest practicing doctors. .

“Medicine is good for you. It gets me out of bed.”

His work as a doctor took him all over the world, including Swaziland, Tanzania, Israel, India and a refugee camp in Ethiopia at the height of the famine in the 1980s.

He also sent him out in the backcountry, from the Port Augusta Flying Doctor Service, to hospitals in Alice Springs, Katherine, and eventually Darwin.

A faded photo, taken from a height, showing two large white bank buildings.  There are palm trees and the harbor beyond.
Dr Foreman’s photo collection captures parts of the Northern Territory as he found them decades ago, like this photo of Darwin in the early 1970s.(Provided: Albert Foreman)

Now he spends his days performing routine procedures in his suburban practice.

“I still love what I do, even if I’m just cleaning muddy ears,” he said.

“I will continue as long as I can, but of course I can’t go on forever.”

An old man looks into a vintage looking medical microscope.
Dr. Albert Foreman, 91, in his Darwin office on or around July 8, 2022.(ABC News: Tristan Hooft)

Make a contribution

According to the latest data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the average retirement age for Australians is 55.4, although several studies show that doctors generally retire much later than other professions.

Among the newspaper clippings on the wall of Dr. Foreman’s waiting room, a group of articles feature other local doctors who continued to practice until late in life, including a friend and colleague, the Dr Edwin ‘Ted’ Milliken, who in 2018 was still working as a psychiatrist at Fannie. Bay, 100 years old.

A frame containing black and white passport-style portraits of people, including a middle-aged white man in the center.
Dr Foreman was middle-aged when he graduated from medical school, having started his studies at the age of 40.(ABC News: Tristan Hooft)

Australian Medical Association Dr Robert Parker said raising the retirement age for doctors was more than just a pleasure to work.

“It’s about making a contribution to society,” he said.

Dr Foreman, who in 2017 received an OAM for his service to medicine, particularly in rural and remote areas, has run his clinic with his wife Eugenia since leaving his post as an assistant surgeon at the Royal Hospital Darwin in 1998, at the age of 70.

“It was my retirement job,” he said.

An aboriginal woman holding a baby in her lap while a white man with special glasses looks into the baby's ear.
Dr. Foreman has worked with thousands of Territorians needing help with ear, nose and throat problems.(Provided: Menzies School of Health Research)

Besides his commitment to his patients, Dr. Foreman also credits his long professional life to his late entry into medicine, which he did not begin studying until he was 40 years old in Papua New Guinea.

“Because I started late, working that long almost partly justifies going in [to study medicine].”

Territory engineering

Before medicine, Dr. Foreman had several careers, and Territorians who did not find themselves among his patients almost certainly encountered his previous work in the roads, airstrips, bridges and sanitary facilities they use daily.

A faded photo, taken from a height, showing a long road with low buildings on either side, running towards some beaches.
A photograph from the collection of Dr Albert Foreman showing the view from Anzac Hill over Alice Springs in the 1980s.(Provided: Albert Foreman)

He first came to the territory in 1957 as a civil engineer with the Commonwealth Works Department, working briefly in Darwin on projects such as the Ludmilla Subdivision and the Parap Water Tower.

He also oversaw a harbor dredging team searching for unexploded bombs.

He then spent four years in and around Alice and the Barkly area carrying out city water supply, sewerage and sanitation works, as well as work on highways and roads in bush.

“At that time I knew all the potholes and all the faults of the Barkly down to Newcastle waters,” he said.

A faded aerial photo showing a bridge over a dry river bed connected to a road under construction on the other side.
Early in his career as a civil engineer, Dr Foreman worked on major road and infrastructure projects such as the Top End’s first bridge over the King’s River. (Provided: Albert Foreman)

Engineering also took him to Katherine, where he was part of the crew that built the first bridge over the King River after the war and worked on the Borroloola, Timber Creek and Roper River roads.

“There was no air conditioning or anything at the time, but I thought it was wonderful,” he said.

The way to medicine

Dr Foreman said he often felt unsuited to engineering, so he left the profession to study theology.

He became eligible to be ordained an Anglican priest, but decided against it in favor of a position as a senior road and airfield engineer in Papua New Guinea.

It was a cushy role, but he took another detour to teach mathematics at the University of Port Moresby, before leaving engineering for good and applying to study medicine in 1971.

A view from a height of green mountains leading down to the sea, with clumps of buildings strewn across them.
Dr Foreman was teaching mathematics in Port Moresby when he decided to go into medicine in 1971.(Supplied” from the Australian National Military)

Port Moresby’s Dean of Medicine, Professor Ian Maddocks (now an eminent palliative care specialist who was awarded the 2013 Senior Australian of the Year award) initially rejected his application, saying that at 40 he was too old to enter the medical profession.

“But it was overruled by other committee members, and I walked in,” Dr. Foreman said.

time to think

Now suffering from hearing loss himself, Dr Foreman said, on reflection, it was probably his childhood that sparked his initial interest in ears.

“I grew up with a deaf father,” he explained.

“He had Ménière’s disease… and he gradually became deaf.

Dr Foreman said his father lived to be 90, adding that he was the first in his family to reach 91.

An elderly man looking at the camera, standing next to a wall full of framed photographs, wearing glasses and a white collared shirt
Dr Foreman will continue to work “as long as I can” but could reduce to just five days a week.(ABC News: Tristan Hooft)

Although he has no plans to retire any time soon, Dr Foreman said he plans to give up a day or two soon.

“I’m going to reduce to five days a week, I have a lot to clean,” he said, looking around at the shelves in his waiting room overflowing with newspapers, books and even his old notes from university courses, to which he still occasionally refers.

“Imagine if I died suddenly, what a nightmare it would be,” he said.