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Bancroft, Joseph (1836–1894)

by M. Josephine Mackerras

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

Joseph Bancroft (1836-1894), medical practitioner, was born on 21 February 1836, the only child of Joseph Bancroft, farmer, of Stretford, Manchester, England, and his wife Ann, née Lane. Bancroft began his medical education with a five-year apprenticeship to Dr Jeremiah Renshaw at Sale in Cheshire; he then studied at the Manchester Royal School of Medicine and Surgery (M.R.C.S., L.S.A., 1859), gaining many prizes; he took the M.D. of St Andrews University in 1859. While still a student he married Ann Oldfield of Manchester, and two daughters were born. After graduation he practised in St James Street, Nottingham, where his son Thomas Lane was born in 1860. To improve his health Bancroft was advised to seek a warmer climate. He became interested in Queensland from the accounts of Fred Walker, and decided to settle there.

In June 1864 Bancroft embarked as surgeon in the Lady Young, a paddle-wheel steamer of 523 tons, with his wife, two surviving children and brother-in-law, George Oldfield. He had been president of the Nottingham Naturalists' Society and was keenly interested in natural history; on the voyage he dissected flying fish, caught albatrosses and collected plants and marine animals during their calls at St Vincent and St Helena. They reached Brisbane on 29 October. He did not immediately begin medical practice, but near Enoggera Creek built a house, Kelvin Grove, named after the gardens near Glasgow where he had spent happy days. It soon became a show place and later gave its name to a suburb. His health improved and he began a practice in Eagle Street. He became a visiting surgeon to the Brisbane Hospital in 1867 and house surgeon in 1868. In 1870 he began to practise at Carlton in Wickham Terrace. Later he built a two-storied house at the corner of Ann and Wharf Streets, where he practised until his death. In 1877 Bancroft and his family visited Britain and left his only son Thomas, who had just left Brisbane Grammar School, to begin his medical studies at the University of Edinburgh. On this visit Bancroft was invited to lecture to the Pathological Society and met many eminent scientists, including Cobbold, Owen, Ringer and Murrell. He also visited Paris to discuss with the French chemist, Petit, the properties of the plant pituri.

Bancroft showed keen interest not only in the medical problems of the young colony but in those affecting stock and agriculture, and his advice was sought on many subjects. He was the first to recognize leprosy, although the disease had been present for at least a decade. Typhoid fever was prevalent and its prevention and treatment engaged his attention. His investigation into cases of hydrocoele and lymphatic abscess, then common in Brisbane, led to the discovery of the worm which causes filariasis; it was named Filaria bancrofti in his honour by Cobbold in 1877. Bancroft was one of the first to suggest that mosquitoes transmitted the disease, demonstrating by microscopical examination that they could imbibe the microfilariae. This suggestion was confirmed by Patrick Manson's discovery in China of developmental forms. At that time it was thought that mosquitoes were short lived and that man became infected by drinking contaminated water. It was left to Bancroft's son to show that mosquitoes could be kept alive for weeks and that the infective stages could leave the proboscis of the mosquito and thus gain entrance to the body by way of the puncture.

Bancroft experimented with wheats, grapes and rice, endeavouring to find suitable varieties for the climate, and prepared reports on diseases of sugar cane and bananas. Interested in the pharmacology of native plants he was the first to investigate the properties of pituri, finding that an infusion of its leaves was intensely toxic to experimental animals. He also demonstrated the mydriatic properties of Duboisia myoporoides, thus laying the foundation of the commercial use of this and related species as sources of hyoscine and atropine, which proved valuable in World War II when other sources were cut off.

Bancroft took part in all public activities of a medical or scientific nature. He joined the Philosophical Society of Queensland in 1866 and was president in 1882-83 when it was absorbed into the newly-formed Royal Society of Queensland. In his presidential address in 1885 he stressed the need for a university. He was also a member of the three medical societies, the first two of which failed to survive, but the third, begun in 1886 under his presidency, flourished. It eventually became the Queensland branch of the British Medical Association, which founded a Bancroft memorial lecture and medal in his honour. He was for some years health officer for Brisbane and a member of the Central Board of Health and of the Medical Board in 1876-94, being president in 1882-94. He was the first president of the section of hygiene and public health of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science. He represented Queensland at the Sanitary Conference in Sydney in 1884, the first intercolonial health conference in Australasia. There the idea of a federal quarantine system was discussed, but nothing came of it until Federation.

In 1888 Bancroft reluctantly joined the royal commission to investigate the rabbit problem. The New South Wales government had offered a prize of £25,000 for an effective method of exterminating rabbits. Of more than 1500 plans submitted, few proved worthy of investigation, but one from Pasteur proposed the introduction of fowl cholera which he had found lethal to rabbits. The commission took evidence in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, and visited Tintinallogy where although rabbits had obviously been destroyed no evidence was found of the unknown affection called the 'Tintinallogy disease', reputed to have reduced the rabbits along the Darling River in 1887. An experimental committee including Bancroft was then set up to investigate Pasteur's plan. Some wanted immediate field trials, but Bancroft opposed them and a laboratory was built on Rodd Island in Sydney Harbour. Experiments showed that, while fowl cholera was lethal to rabbits, it not only failed to spread naturally among them but also exposed the fowl population to the introduction of a new disease. All this arduous and time-consuming work therefore bore no fruit, and Bancroft concluded that 'The hope lies in a careful study of the natural history and pathological conditions of the rabbit—and the sooner this is perceived the better', a view not accepted for many years.

Bancroft invented a process of drying and canning beef for export, and erected works at his property at Deception Bay. The product was a palatable fine powder known as 'pemmican', but the venture was not a commercial success. He had an alert and inquiring mind, was resourceful and self-reliant, with a high sense of public duty. He was quick tempered and often abrupt in his speech. However, he endeared himself to his family and friends, and his sudden death at Ann Street on 16 June 1894 came as a shock to many Brisbane residents, who felt they had lost a most distinguished citizen. He had published thirty-eight scientific papers between 1866 and 1894.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Ford, ‘The Life and Influence of Joseph Bancroft, M.D.’, Medical Journal of Australia, 4 Feb 1961, pp 153-70.

Citation details

M. Josephine Mackerras, 'Bancroft, Joseph (1836–1894)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bancroft-joseph-2927/text4233, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 19 February 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

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