Dean’s of the Distant Past

Address from Dr Kate Robson

Dr Kate Robson graduated from the University of Melbourne in 2007 with an MBBS (Hons). A talented musician with a flair for languages, she complemented her medical studies with a Bachelor of Arts and a Diploma of Music.

Kate was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship in 2008, and, after completing her internship at St Vincent's Hospital, moved to Oxford to undertake a research Masters in History and Philosophy of Medicine, focusing on the history of chronic illness in hospitals of the nineteenth century.
While at Oxford, Kate also helped steer a health policy education program for medical students, and pursued her passion for music, playing piano and cello in chamber music groups and orchestras, and singing in Christ Church's 13th-century cathedral as a member of the college choir.

Kate returned to clinical practice in Melbourne in August 2011, and is now a medical registrar at St Vincent's Hospital. She is currently preparing for the College of Physicians Fellowship exam, developing her clinical skills and leading bedside teaching with medical students. She continues playing music, as a cellist in the Australian Doctors Orchestra and Melbourne's own Corpus Medicorum orchestra.

Kate's interest in medical history also plays a big part in her work, and she is greatly enjoying playing an active role in the medical school's 150th anniversary celebrations.

It’s my pleasure today to honour the past leaders of the Medical School who cannot be with us, offering a snapshot of each, in order to introduce them to you, or to recall them vividly to your memory, depending on your vintage.

In July of 1857, the Editorial of the Australian Medical Journal read: ‘We conceive ... the time has arrived for a School of Medicine to be established ... Found the College, appoint the teachers, and the pupils will soon appear’.

We know that Anthony Colling Brownless, Vice-Chancellor, was already hard at work on achieving this. Together with his Medical School Committee, he negotiated a reduction in the salaries of law and engineering lecturers in order to fund medical teaching, and he appointed the first lecturer, chemist John Macadam. So it was that the Medical School began in March 1862, with one lecturer and three students.

The next step was to find a professor for the school. Brownless wrote to Chancellor Redmond Barry, who was visiting England during this last flurry of activity, and asked him to discuss the matter with eminent medical men James Paget and Richard Owen. After interviewing a short list of five, they made an enthusiastic recommendation, and Barry informed Brownless that he had found ‘a conscientious, earnest, efficient, industrious man, tho’ showy or shining abilities you are not to expect’. This man was George Britton Halford, distinguished experimental physiologist, known for his work on the function of the heart. 

George Britton Halford

Halford spent some time collecting books and specimens, before making the 108-day journey to Melbourne with his family in 1862. As a professor, he was indeed industrious. Halford was the only full-time medical lecturer, the only anatomy lecturer, the museum curator, and also examined arts students in French. Halford was earnest, too, in arguing for what he believed. He campaigned for the inclusion of more natural philosophy (or biology) in the course, sought to permit women to attend the University, and successfully advocated for the foundation of a Faculty of Medicine. Halford arguably sacrificed a research career through his devotion to the school. He had little time to pursue his early work in physiology of the heart, and his later work on snake venom was largely discredited.

Halford resigned as Dean in 1886, but did not retire from the University until the turn of century. He tirelessly nurtured the medical school, from its beginnings, over more than 30 years. As Kenneth Russell points out, Halford ‘made the reputation of the Melbourne medical school … at the expense of his own’.

Harry Brookes Allen

Halford’s successor as Dean was Harry Brookes Allen. Allen was a local man, born and raised in Geelong, who entered the Melbourne medical course as a student in 1871. He graduated in 1876, achieving first-class honours and exhibitions in every year of his course. Aged 22, he immediately joined the staff of the medical school as an anatomy demonstrator, and later became chair of pathology and curator of the museum.

Allen was a great moderniser. He took a distinctly practical approach to the teaching of pathology, conducting regular lessons in the post-mortem room, and building up a remarkable collection of pathological specimens, totalling more than 15,000 – most of which he mounted himself. We remember him now through the school’s Museum of Anatomy and Pathology, named in his honour.

One of Allen’s first projects upon becoming Dean in 1886 was to negotiate with both the Melbourne Hospital and the Alfred Hospital to promote the acceptance of clinical teaching, and he later oversaw the addition of the St Vincent’s Hospital clinical school in 1909.

An excellent administrator and communicator, Allen was integral in the foundation of both the Australian Institute of Tropical Medicine and the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute.

As his successor, Richard Berry, observed, Allen was fervently committed to the improvement of the Medical School where he spent much of his life, and ‘which he had come to regard as his own’. He made a lasting impression on his students, as Sir Roy Cameron tells us: ‘Allen’s voice was calm and monotonous, he seldom showed any emotion. But ... he had an aura that event he brashest of medical students sensed and respected. My heart was lost to pathology from the first lecture.’

Richard Berry

Whereas Allen’s whole life was centred round the medical school, Richard Berry, who became Dean in 1925, was initially an outsider. He first came to Melbourne on a February day in 1906, to take up the position of Professor of Anatomy, and recalled that Melbourne ‘seemed a city set in a wide measureless plain sweltering in the heat.’ ‘Notwithstanding the heat,’ he writes, ‘I determined to go and see for myself if the anatomy department was as bad as was depicted to me. It was worse ... It contained literally nothing, not even a skeleton.’

Where Allen had spent most of his energy on the teaching of pathology, Richard ‘Dicky’ Berry set about reviving the discipline of anatomy. He oversaw ambitious building projects: first the addition of a second floor to the medical building, and then the erection of a purpose-built anatomy department in 1923, which was nicknamed ‘Berry’s folly’ and still exists today as the Berry Building. He built up a large collection of specimens, with a specific interest in anthropology.

Berry was also a great supporter of the rebuilding of the Melbourne Hospital on its current site, over the old Parkville pig market, strongly believing that the clinical and teaching aspects of medicine should be co-located in order to advance scientific medicine.

William Osborne

Trained in Belfast, William Osborne was Professor of Physiology at the University of Melbourne for over 20 years before becoming Dean in 1929. As Dean, he established the chair of biochemistry, and negotiated the move of the medical buildings across campus. Pansy Wright, writing in the RACP Roll, describes Osborne’s contribution as ‘muted’, but suggests this was ‘certainly at least partly due to carbon monoxide. In 1939, a fracture was found in a lead gas pipe in his study, the smell filtered out by several layers of felt and carpet.’ This doesn’t seem to have blunted Osborne’s achievements significantly, however! He was a multi-faceted man, fluent in German, French, Italian, Spanish and Norwegian, a keen film buff, and member of the Wallaby Walking Club. This Renaissance figure described the division between the two cultures of art and science as ‘the great frustration of my life’.

Peter MacCallum

Osborne’s successor was Peter MacCallum, who, as we all know, is quite literally an institution. Scottish-born, MacCallum came from New Zealand in 1925 to take over Harry Allen’s professorship of pathology.

His first four years as Dean, the war years of 1939-1944, were a challenging time: the medical course was required to be shortened, putting considerable pressure on teaching staff. During the war, MacCallum commanded the medical wing of the Melbourne University Rifles, and served on the chemical warfare research committee. He was a thorough teacher, most appreciated by his postgraduate students, and had many extra-curricular interests, as president of the university sports union and chairman of the grounds committee.

MacCallum is of course best known for his contribution to cancer medicine. He chaired the executive committee of the Anti-Cancer Council for almost 20 years, and advocated the foundation of a cancer institute. Beginning in 1949 as the Victorian Cancer Institute, it became the thriving centre of research and teaching that we know today as the Peter MacCallum Cancer Institute.

Robert Marshall Allan

In 1944, Marshall Allan was appointed Dean, but was unfortunately forced to retire only a year later after a severe heart attack. He was the University’s first Professor of Obstetrics, and his research shaped obstetric practice in Victoria.

Roy Douglas Wright

Although only serving for three years, this dean is larger than life, and the subject of some of the medical school’s most legendary stories. Many here will have personal recollections of Pansy, or Sir Roy Douglas Wright. Pansy Wright was a graduate of the Melbourne medical school, and worked in Oxford with Howard Florey, before coming back as Professor of Physiology, a position which he held for 32 years, greatly expanding the curriculum and increasing student experimental work. He went on to be Chancellor of the University for nine years, and had a leading role in building post-war medical science, spearheading the establishment of the Australian National University and the Australian Kidney Foundation. He was a colourful and passionate person, a man, writes Peter McPhee in his biography, ‘of extraordinary intelligence ... capable of great acts of kindness ... but always convinced that his immediate world was ruled by incompetents and conspirators’. ‘Like Samuel Johnson’, said Davis McCaughey in his obituary for Pansy, ‘he could perceive humbug or pretension and deflate it in a memorable phrase.’

Sydney Sunderland

Many of my hours at medical school were spent in the Sunderland Theatre, so I have enjoyed the opportunity to reflect on the contribution of Sydney Sunderland, who served as Dean for almost 20 years during the 50s and 60s. Sunderland’s background was in anatomy and neurology, and a new chair in experimental neurology was created at the University for him in 1961. Drawing on experience gained at both Oxford and Johns Hopkins, Sunderland worked with injured Australian servicemen, building up a remarkable body of literature on peripheral nerve damage and repair. While Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, Sunderland oversaw the construction of the new medical school complex on the corner of Grattan Street and Royal Parade, which many of us recall entering for the very first time as new medical students.

Lance Townsend

Sydney ‘Lance’ Townsend is the last of the deans whom we’re posthumously honouring today. After graduating from the Melbourne medical school, he worked in Bendigo and Tennant Creek, before seeking further training in obstetrics in the UK. He became Melbourne University’s Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, and was a leading contributor in this field through the Royal Women’s Hospital, the Austin Hospital, the Maternal Health Committee and the Victorian Cytology Service. He co-chaired the Syme-Townsend report on state health services, which led to the creation of the Health Commission of Victoria. His eulogists speak of his energy and enthusiasm, the spark of which immediately leapt out at me from the archival photos.

It has been a privilege indeed for me to reflect on the contributions of these great nurturers of our fine medical school, and to remember that our greatest historical legacy is not in the school’s papers and objects and buildings, but in its people and their passions.