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Barber, George Walter (1868–1951)

by William A. Land

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

George Walter Barber (1868-1951), medical practitioner and administrator, was born on 20 November 1868 at Prestwich, Lancashire, England, son of Charles Worthington Barber, merchant, and his wife Isabella, née Loughborough. Educated at Whitgift Grammar School, London, he later became a cadet on the Conway, the merchant navy training-ship at Birkenhead, and in 1884 joined the Star of Russia as an apprentice crewman. Within a year he had to leave the sea because of defective eyesight; he then studied medicine at the University of London (M.R.C.S., England, L.R.C.P., London, 1891) and after holding appointments at the Bedford County and Lewes hospitals, became a ship's surgeon with the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co.

About 1895 Barber migrated to Western Australia and began private practice at Kalgoorlie; he married Janet Watson Salmond at Christ Church, Springwood, New South Wales, on 8 August 1896. He was appointed district medical officer for Kalgoorlie in October 1907 and remained in the goldfields area until 1911. Commissioned lieutenant, West Australian (Volunteer) Medical Staff, in September 1900, he later enlisted in the Australian Army Medical Corps and was promoted captain in 1905. He was assigned to the 1st Battalion Goldfields Infantry Regiment three years later and served with this unit until 1911 when he moved to Perth to take up an appointment as Commonwealth medical officer at Kalamunda. There, he kept up his links with the militia and was promoted major in the A.A.M.C. on 2 July 1912.

When war broke out in August 1914 Barber was mobilized as senior medical officer to the Fremantle Garrison. In October he was appointed major in the Australian Imperial Force and sailed for Egypt on 14 December as registrar and second-in-command of the 2nd Australian Stationary Hospital. After the landing at Gallipoli his hospital was based on the Gloucester Castle and the Franconia, dealing with casualties from the Peninsula. Barber became its commanding officer on 20 November, was promoted lieutenant-colonel on 1 January 1916 and temporary colonel next month, and was made assistant director of medical services for the 4th Australian Division which left for France in June. He was mentioned in dispatches in July and served at Pozières and Mouquet Farm in August and September. While stationed in the Somme region he increased the effectiveness of field medical units by moving regimental aid-posts closer to the lines, increasing the number of stretcher-bearers and instituting new hygiene and sanitation regulations. His standing orders later became the basis of those for the Australian Corps. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order in January 1917 and was confirmed as colonel next month.

Throughout 1917 Barber remained with the 4th Division, serving at Bullecourt, Messines and Passchendaele, and was mentioned in dispatches three times. On 8 April 1918 he was made deputy director of medical services for the Australian Corps. His skill as an organizer and administrator was most fully appreciated in mid-1918 when trench warfare gave way to mobile warfare; adapting quickly, he reorganized his field medical units so successfully that the evacuation of the wounded and the provision of medical supplies continued smoothly. His arrangements for the battles of the Hindenburg Line, Polygon Wood and Messines are regarded as models of careful organization and efficiency. In 1918 he was twice mentioned in dispatches, and on 1 January 1919 was awarded the Croix de Guerre; he was appointed C.B. in June.

Barber returned to Australia in October 1919 and was made principal medical officer for the 5th Military District (Perth) on 1 January 1920. Although he was discharged from the A.I.F. a month later, he retained this position until 1 August 1921, when he became deputy director of medical services for the district. He was president that year of the Western Australian branch of the British Medical Association. In May 1925 he was appointed, with the rank of colonel and temporary major general, to the Permanent Military Forces as director general of medical services at Australian army headquarters, Melbourne. He was confirmed major general on 9 March 1927 and was also made director general of medical services for the Royal Australian Air Force and the Department of Civil Aviation. He held these offices until his retirement from the army on 20 August 1934. The last seventeen years of his life were spent in a quiet semi-rural practice at Kalamunda.

Survived by his wife, a son and three daughters, Barber died at Perth on 24 July 1951, and was cremated. A portrait by George Bell hangs in the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • C. E. W. Bean, The Story of Anzac (Syd, 1921), and The A.I.F. in France (Syd, 1929, 1937)
  • A. G. Butler (ed), Official History of the Australian Medical Services … 1914-18, vols 1, 2 (Melb, 1930, Canb, 1940)
  • Government Gazette of Western Australia, 27 Aug 1909, 11 Aug 1911
  • London Gazette, 11 July 1916, 1, 2 Jan, 1 June, 28 Dec 1917, 1 Jan, 28 May, 31 Dec 1918, 7 Jan, 3 June, 11 July 1919
  • Australian Army Orders, 23 Oct 1920
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 25 Aug 1951
  • Listening Post (Perth), Aug 1951
  • Herald (Melbourne), 21 July 1934.

Citation details

William A. Land, 'Barber, George Walter (1868–1951)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/barber-george-walter-5123/text8567, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 17 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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