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Biographical entry Helfet, Arthur Jacob (1907 - 1989)

MRCS 1935; FRCS 1937; BSc Cape Town 1929; MB ChB Liverpool 1932; MChOrth 1937; MD 1938; FACS 1964.

19 February 1907
Calvinia, Cape Province, South Africa
10 October 1989
Orthopaedic surgeon


Arthur Jacob Helfet was born in Calvinia, Cape Province, on 19 February 1907, the eldest son of Leon Helfet, a farmer and businessman, and Sara (née Levin). His early education was at Calvinia High School and he proceeded to the University of Cape Town where he graduated BSc in 1929. His clinical studies were at Liverpool University and he qualified in 1932 subsequently undertaking junior hospital appointments at Liverpool Royal Infirmary. He soon developed a special interest in orthopaedics, working under Professor T P MacMurray and within 5 years of qualification had secured both the FRCS and the MCh in orthopaedics. He was appointed chief assistant to the orthopaedic department of St Thomas's Hospital and enlisted in the Territorial Army in 1937. TWo years later he was called up for military service in the Royal Army Medical Corps where he attained the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. He was appointed Hunterian Professor in 1941 and was then posted overseas to serve in Sierra Leone with the West African Frontier Force. During this time he encountered many examples of yaws in the native troops as this disease was endemic in the area and with encouragement from Major-General Rowley Bristow published an account of the problem in the Journal of bone and joint surgery. In 1944 he was posted to the Middle East and appointed orthopaedic consultant to all the Allied forces in Africa.

He returned to South Africa at the end of the war and initially was appointed surgeon to Maitland Cottage Home and the school for spastics in Cape Town. In April 1948 he was invited to Israel to organise the accident services of that country - an experience he was to describe as "the most romantic of my medical career" - and was awarded the State of Israel Liberation Medal for his services. On returning to South Africa he played an important role in the formation of the College of Physicians, Surgeons and Gynaecologists of South Africa and served as a member of the first Council of the College. He was President of the South African Orthopaedic Association from 1957 to 1959 and during this time was elected Hunterian Professor for a second time, a rare distinction, lecturing on the mechanism of derangements of the medial meniscus.

In 1961 he left South Africa to take up appointment as Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery at Einstein College of Medicine in New York and remained there until 1972 when he retired to South Africa. Throughout his life he was a prodigious writer, contributing many articles to orthopaedic journals and also to standard textbooks. His 80th birthday was marked by the publication of an "Arthur J Helfet Special Issue" by the Orthopaedic review with contributions by many friends, colleagues and former students. He was elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society in South Africa in 1985.

He married Nathalie Freeman in 1939 and they had three sons, Anthony, David and Timothy, and a daughter, Tessa. One son is qualified as a doctor. He died on 10 October 1989, aged 82.

Sources used to compile this entry: [S Afr med J 1989, 76, 7034].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England