The Country Doctor

The Country Doctor

30 years of medical care in Busselton by Dr Walter Yates

Dr Walter Percy Yates was born in Yorkshire. He came to Western Australia in 1912 and first set up a practice in York. Then he worked for a short time at Woodman Point Quarantine Station. After the war, he came to Busselton and was appointed Government Medical Officer for the district in 1922, a position he held until 1955.
When Dr Yates began practicing, he was the only doctor between Capel and Albany and often visited patients on horseback, horse and cart or car depending on the road conditions. He helped to establish the St John Ambulance in the district and in 1940 was recognised as an honorary life member. He was a member of the first board of management for the Villa Maria project, the first retirement village in the area.
His home in Busselton was built between 1922 and 1929 by the prominent architectural team of Cohen & Eales. Dr Yates lived in the house and ran his surgery from the front rooms. The verandah outside the surgery and facing the street was well known by residents for more than 30 years as they filled the chairs lined up along its length waiting for their turn to see the doctor.

Many Busselton residents remember and mention him;

“Old Dr Yates in Busselton. He was a grand old doctor. He brought all of my babies into the world, excepting one” Elsie Dawson

“Well, the nearest medical centre, of course, was at Busselton. The whole area was covered by one doctor, the so highly esteemed Doctor Percy Yates. He would, without fuss, travel miles without fuss, travel miles out into the bush in cases of emergency.
In one instance, when my own mother needed urgent attention, I rode horseback eighteen miles into Busselton, roused the doctor at two am in the morning, and even though he had not long been in bed from an emergency at Yallingup, he agreed to come if I could get a taxi. This I did, with some trouble, and we arrived at the farm at seven am. Mother's condition was serious, and I went back with them to get my horse, and Dr Yates collected the Matron and returned to the farm in his own car and operated on my mother in the house. When I arrived back on horseback at about two pm he was having a cup of tea prior to setting back over dreadful bush roads. I have no idea what medical costs were those days. All I do know was that Dr Percy Yates never turned back a call, however far or however difficult it was to get there.” Frank Oates

But generally speaking if there was an accident it was up to the telephonist to find out where the doctor was. Sometimes the doctors would let us know if they were going to be at a particular place, and not at home. We’d try the Hospital perhaps if we didn’t know where they were. In the case of Dr Yates he used to go to the Pictures every Wednesday and Saturday night and he would let us know where he was. And we’d ring the Commercial Hotel and they’d trot round to the Pictures and get him to the phone. So we could tell him what we needed him for.”
Mary Wheldon

“There was a lot of scratches and broken arms and things like that, but they all got fixed up properly by Dr Yates. He was marvellous. He had to go out there onto the jetty. He went out one morning at five o’clock to the chief steward of the Woomera, who was reeling around in his cabin and nobody knew what to do for him. So I got the engine out–the railway engine–took Dr Yates out there. He went in and took one look at him, felt his stomach and said, ‘Hospital.’ He operated on him before eight o’clock and saved the man’s life. His name was Hughes and he still writes to somebody here thanking them for what happened that morning.” Reg Bovell

“Oh yes, Dr Yates used to come around, when he was needed; when it was essential he’d come out with his car and visit. He was very good; he used to travel quite a long way. Of course, there was a doctor at Margaret River; he didn’t have to go down as far as there. I often felt very sorry for him really, because he never knew when he was going to have a complete night’s rest. I mean, at the hospital, he had to turn up at any time of the day or night in order to attend to any sudden illness or women in childbirth. It was, oh, a very difficult position to fill I should imagine.”
Fred Coley

You know he was a tremendous person Dr Yates. He used to go to Jarrahwood once a week, I think it was. I’m not sure whether he went to Nannup, but he did go past once a week. Now, those days, the roads were pretty bad, there was very little drainage and the river used to overflow across the road several times a year. Every time there was heavy rain, the river would clog up because of no drainage. There was no bypass drains those days. The water used to flow straight to Wonnerup, and it’d bank up and flow past our place onto the road. Well, nearly every week, you know, during the winter he’d get bogged. My brother Andrew had a horse there, he’d harness up the horse, hook onto Dr Yates’ car, and pull away, and he always got ten bob, I think it was, for doing that. So that was fairly good.
I remember at one stage I thought I’d do some sleeper cutting – I was about sixteen, I suppose – and I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll go and cut a few sleepers.’ I’d split this millet, and so I got my father’s sharp axe and I made one terrific swipe, cut the bit of wood of course, but I hit myself on the leg and I had to go into Dr Yates to have it stitched. They drove me to hospital in this horse and cart. I got out of the horse and cart, and the first thing he done was to get a bottle of iodine and tip that onto it. Then a nurse held the Miller lamp while Dr Yates sewed it up. I think he put about eight stitches in it and I never ever felt him do it. Nothing to deaden it, only the iodine, and it just got better. And right through the years, you know, Dr Yates carried on his practice on his own, and at any time of the night or day you could go in there and wake him up and he didn’t mind. That was Dr Yates, the doctor. Joe Torrent

There was charcoal down in what we called the charcoal kiln. We used to walk past this place a lot of times when we were going down to our swimming hole. I was told that this charcoal was made for a Dr Yates. He used to come to Jarrahwood to visit. I’m not really sure if it was once a week or once a fortnight, whatever he’d come, but he’d come on a Tuesday. He’d be there all day and then leave probably midday on the Wednesday, to go back home. But they used to cut this charcoal so it would fit into his burner on his little car he had. I don’t know how a charcoal burner worked, but he’d fill this up with this charcoal, and probably take a couple of bags just in case, to get home. I don’t really know how much he’d go. But they used to have this machine down there; it was like a big mincer. They’d put the charcoal, well I presume it was the coals from the fires they had at Jarrahwood. The timber they burnt, they’d put them in and they’d wind the handle of this, and these little like ice cubes would come out, and that was what he used to run his charcoal car. But I’d never seen it, I can’t really remember the car, but I can remember the doctor’s surgery being there. That was in between; the post office, the doctor’s surgery, and then the main mill store. And that was all down in there. Well, they’d have to have an office for the doctor, ’cos he’d come there to spend the day there, he’d have his own surgery. There was a little room there that had a bed and everything in it. The boarding house – he used to go and eat there, he never slept there – he’d get his meals at the boarding house.
Bill Lewis

“The nearest doctor was in Busselton. It was always Doctor Yates years ago and my father had been to him in 1914 at York. He used to be a doctor at York and my father knew him from those days. All through the 1920s Doctor Yates was marvelous, going out to outback farms and doing all kinds of things that we didn’t really realize. He was so patient and he would have a couple of sessions a day at a hospital and I don’t know how he fitted it all in but he did. But he really was quite a marvelous person. He always held his surgery at his house in Albert Street and the waiting room was on the corner of the verandah and there were a lot of cane chairs and we all sat on them. They didn’t have any kind of appointment system in those days – it was first in, got in first. He would come out and say “Next please” and we would all look at each other and one would point at you, or someone else, and say “That one; you’re next” and in we would go. You didn’t go in at any particular time.”
Allan Marshall

Well Dr Yates I can well remember. Of course he had no waiting room facilities. You would sit on his side veranda and it was usually bitterly cold there; there was nothing there, no windbreaks or anything and that wind used to really whisk through there. I’ve heard many patients who were sitting there jokingly say, “Well if you haven’t had anything wrong with you when you come, you’ll certainly have a good cold when you go away.”
But Doctor’s usual approach would be when he opened the door, “Oh, haw, haw, haw, you look well today!” It didn’t matter much how serious the complaint was, or what of the hour of the day or night that you went there, there was always that hearty laugh when he opened the door and not like we have today where you have the particular hours for consultation. But it didn’t matter any time of day you always got that resounding “Haw, haw, haw, what have we got now?”
I always remember, I went there on one occasion with a broken nose, and he sat me down in the chair and said “Hmm, it looks as if there’s something wrong here – it’s a little bit one-sided.” So he took hold of my nose in his finger and thumb, and no anaesthetic of course or anything of that sort and just proceeded to straighten it up. The tears were pouring down my face and he dashed off into his wife’s bedroom and came back with a hand mirror and gave it to me and said, “Well, what do you think of it now?” And I said “Well, doctor, I think it still is a little bit on one side.” He said “Oh well you know, it’s a hard thing to make a good job out of second-hand material.”
Alex Patterson

No Dr Yates he never came visiting on the farm. But we had a dog break it’s leg one day and I rang him up to see if he could tell me how to tie it up to keep it together. And he said, “Bring it in and I’ll fix it”. So I took it in and he put it on the lawn and put its leg in a splint. Maud Torrent

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