John (Jack) Reuben Salas FRCS(Ed) FRACS
Otolaryngology Head & Neck Surgeon
11 April 1919 - 22 September 2014

Jack Salas was born in Auckland to Rose (Myers) Salas and Rabbi Max Salas, the fifth of their six children. The first-born son died before Jack’s birth, leaving him with three older sisters and a younger brother. Jack attended Maungawhau School (primary) in Mt Eden and then Mt Albert Grammar, from which he matriculated. He was active, a bantam weight boxer, and enjoyed the freedom of the outdoors, but regretted that his Jewish upbringing ruled out Saturday sports for him. A keen medical corps school cadet, he was inspired to study medicine.

Jack’s family was of modest means and, as there was insufficient to permit university attendance, Jack secured a job as a clerk in the Inland Revenue Department. He continued training with the territorials and, aged 20 when war broke out in September 1939, enlisted promptly with his unit, departing for North Africa with the 1st Echelon in January 1940. He was wounded in Crete in 1941, but, sheltered by local villagers, was able to avoid capture. For their care and selfless kindness, he felt a lifelong debt of gratitude. Recovering partially from his wounds, Jack was attached to the Greek Army in Palestine for a short time, before returning to active service in the 2nd New Zealand Division in Egypt, taking part in the battle of El Alamein. At the battle of Takrouna in April 1943 he sustained serious wounds and, to his great disappointment, was invalided out of the war. He was discharged in 1944 and told he would never run or play sport again.  Not one to give up, Jack worked hard at his rehabilitation, and in due course proved that prediction incorrect.

In 1945, assisted by a government bursary for returned soldiers, he enrolled as a medical student at Otago University. There he met Laurie Webster, née Hay, an arts graduate whose husband had died in a medical accident whilst in military training. Jack and Laurie, two mature students whose lives had impelled them towards medicine, married in 1946, and started a family in 1947 - Laurie giving up her medical studies.  Completing his MB ChB in 1949, Jack worked as a house surgeon in Dunedin and Christchurch Hospitals, and in general practice in Timaru 1950-51. In 1952, Jack and Laurie, with children, Felicity, Margaret (Jo) and Janet, travelled to Edinburgh where he gained his FRCSEd in 1953 and began ENT training. In Edinburgh he worked as Clinical Assistant to the eminent surgeons Simpson-Hall and Brownlee-Smith, and was SHO, and later Registrar, to Drs Stewart and Lumsden.

Returning to New Zealand in 1954 Jack commenced at Christchurch Hospital and then secured a position as Specialist ENT surgeon at Timaru Hospital. In 1957, anticipating better career prospects, he took up an appointment as Specialist ENT Surgeon at Wellington Hospital and the family, now with four daughters (two sons would be born later) moved to the capital. In 1958 he obtained his FRACS.  Jack’s medical career was not aided by the anti-Semitism that persisted in New Zealand after WW2, and this compromised his career opportunities. (Although he had ceased practising his parents’ religion at the age of seventeen, he retained a connection to the Jewish community, and honoured family obligations according to the Jewish tradition.) In 1968, Jack resigned from Wellington Hospital and set up consulting rooms with urologist Fergus Ferguson in Tinakori Road, operating at Calvary Hospital, the Home of Compassion and at Bowen Hospital. The Home of Compassion was a registered Charitable Hospital which offered medical care to the disadvantaged in the community, including those with physical challenges. Jack embraced this spirit fully, operating there weekly, and frequently referring patients there when he considered that they could not afford private hospital care. On turning 65 in 1984, he retired from surgery, believing that his age could become a risk factor.

Sister Shirley Tunnicliffe described Jack - “He was noted to be a very skilled and inventive surgeon, especially in the area of microscopic ear surgery where he was always looking for ways to improve techniques to achieve better outcomes. Setting very high standards at all times, he expected the same from all who worked with him either in the operating theatre or in the wards. The Sisters of Compassion and all those who worked with him over the many years have a lasting memory of Jack’s care and concern for his patients, particularly those with special needs. He was very generous with his time and talents and contributed greatly to the work of Compassion.”   

In retirement, he remained active in many areas of medical practice, as well as developing new interests. Jack and Laurie regarded community involvement as their duty, and Jack became a strong supporter of the Red Cross. He was a co-founder of the Te Aro Clinic, in Wellington, set up in 1985 to provide free or low-cost medical care to those who were substance-dependent or homeless. He also worked for some years as a prison medical officer. He had a long association with ACC as a consultant, enjoying the challenge and variety of work locations, including going down the mines.

A keen photographer in his younger days, Jack set up a dark room at home, taking photographs of his work and young family and appreciating fine cameras.  With a life spent acquiring knowledge, and the ability to recognise and adopt innovation, even in his eighties and nineties Jack was an active user of the internet and associated technology. The advances in communication helped him stay in touch not only with family, but also friends and acquaintances, and, despite failing sight and mobility, meant that he could keep up with world affairs and developments in his medical field. He tutored at SeniorNet for some years until his health and eyesight made it impossible. A skilled technician, he became an enthusiastic and adept woodturner, dedicating daily time to productive woodcraft until he moved to a rest home. Jack left a large and loved library behind, and a legacy of inquiry and research.

Jack was a social being who enjoyed long friendships and a love of good whisky and wine. HIs sharp wit, insight, intelligence and excellent memory made him a formidable raconteur. Throughout their lives Jack and Laurie, with their sense of belonging to a generation of survivors, kept in touch with a close circle of friends from wartime and university. They shared a deep intellectual bond and a strong commitment to the community which carried with it an acceptance of responsibility for its welfare. When Laurie was honoured (DBE) for her work in international peace and women’s movements Jack was extremely proud.

Jack died in 2014 and Laurie in 2017. They are survived by their six children, Felicity, Jo, Janet, Rosie, David and Patrick, seven grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren.


This obituary was prepared by Allan Panting with considerable assistance from Jack Salas’s children.