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Belisario, John (1820–1900)

by John C. Belisario

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

John Belisario (1820-1900), dental surgeon, was born in Cheltenham, England, son of John Belisario, shipping merchant, and his wife Catherine, née Da Costa. His grandparents were Spanish and his grandmother came from an ancient family in Castille. A delicate child he was sent at 16 to the West Indies where he spent about a year on his uncle's plantation. Restored in health, he returned to England and served his apprenticeship at St Thomas's Hospital, London. At 21 his articles expired and soon afterwards he decided to try the milder climate of Australia. He arrived at Sydney in the Fairlie in 1841. On the voyage he had met Mary Longfield who came from Cork and had distinguished relations in the church and the army. They were married at St Peter's Church of England, Campbelltown, on 2 January 1843. After she died he was married to Isabella Helen, daughter of Dr Ramsay of Dobroyd, on 7 October 1854 at Ashfield by Dr John Dunmore Lang.

Belisario began a practice in Princes Street and in 1844 moved to Spring Street where in June 1847 he achieved renown by administering surgical anaesthesia; this first use of ether for that purpose in Australia appears to have preceded the experiments of William Pugh in Van Diemen's Land though the press reports coincided. In his venture Belisario had the support of his friend, Dr Charles Nathan. The mantle of fame never left him; his name became well known in dentistry both in Australia and overseas. He moved his practice to Liverpool Street and later to Lyons Terrace, Sydney. In 1854 the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery conferred on Belisario an honorary doctorate. In 1860 he became a corresponding member of the Odontological Society of London. He was also a corresponding member of the Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, and the American Academy of Dental Surgery. His local affiliations included membership of the Royal Society, the Linnean Society and trusteeship of the Australian Museum. Between 1863 and 1888 he made five visits to England and America. In his last years he suffered from angina pectoris and chronic gastritis. On 17 June 1900 Belisario died at his home in Cowper Street, Waverley, survived by his wife, three children of his first marriage and two of the second.

A junior contemporary paid this tribute: 'As an operator, comparing his methods with those of other men of similar standing, one realized how very much better [Belisario] was than he knew. It is not at all uncommon to see fillings of his that had stood the test of forty years'. His influence led to a small band of dentists in New South Wales uniting for the first time to form a dental association in 1892 with the object of establishing a dental school and hospital, a dream fulfilled soon after his death.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Blackwell, ‘The father of Australian dentistry
  • Dr. Belisario and his work’, Proceedings of the Australian Dental Congress (1909)
  • N. J. Dunlop, ‘An Essay Relating Chiefly to Anaesthetics and Their Introduction to Australia and Tasmania’, Medical Journal of Australia, 29 Jan 1927, pp 141-52
  • R. W. Halliday, ‘John Belisario — father of Australian dentistry, 1820-1900’, Dental Magazine and Oral Topics, 79 (1962), 144
  • J. C. Belisario, ‘The first general anaesthetic in Australia’, Medical Journal of Australia, 4 Mar 1967.

Citation details

John C. Belisario, 'Belisario, John (1820–1900)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/belisario-john-2967/text4321, published in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 22 September 2014.

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

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