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Belisario, John Colquhoun (1900–1976)

by G. L. McDonald

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

John Colquhoun Belisario (1900-1976), by unknown photographer

John Colquhoun Belisario (1900-1976), by unknown photographer

Australian War Memorial, 071278

John Colquhoun Belisario (1900-1976), dermatologist, was born on 30 April 1900 at Double Bay, Sydney, only child of Guy Alexander Fernandez Belisario, solicitor, and his wife Isobel Colquhoun, née Fraser, both Sydneysiders; John Belisario was John's grandfather. Educated at The King's School, Parramatta, and the University of Sydney (M.B., Ch.M., 1926; D.D.M., 1947; M.D., 1950), he served as a resident medical officer at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in 1926-28. While pursuing postgraduate dermatological studies in Europe, he met American-born Freda Adele ('Peggy') Sauber whom he married on 10 November 1930 at All Saints Anglican Church, Woollahra, Sydney.

His principal base as a dermatologist and clinical teacher was R.P.A.H. where he was an honorary assistant physician (1932-44), honorary physician (1944-60) and honorary consulting physician (1960-76) for diseases of the skin; he was also a member (1955-76) of its board of directors. Concurrently Belisario held appointments at five other Sydney hospitals and conducted a busy private practice at 143 Macquarie Street. In every aspect of his work his energy and enthusiasm were prodigious. A prolific contributor to journals and meetings, he became internationally known. His clinical interests covered the whole range of dermatology, but his book, Cancer of the Skin (1959), established his reputation in that field, and most of his subsequent publications dealt with various types of skin cancer.

Having been a Militia officer from 1927, Belisario was appointed lieutenant colonel in the Australian Imperial Force on 1 July 1940 and commanded the 2nd/3rd Casualty Clearing Station in Greece. For his bravery, efficiency and leadership during the German invasion of April 1941 and the allied evacuation under fire from the mainland and thence from Crete, he was to be appointed O.B.E. on 30 December. Promoted temporary colonel in August 1941, he had charge of the 2nd/5th Australian General Hospital in the Middle East until January 1942 and from January 1943 to May 1944 in Port Moresby where he built it into a large, efficient hospital which gave first-class service during the campaign to drive the Japanese from Papua New Guinea. His appointment was terminated in August 1944.

From December 1941 Belisario had also been consultant dermatologist to the A.I.F., an important post because of the frequency of disabling skin diseases among troops in the deserts and, later, in the jungles. He was elevated to C.B.E. in 1945 and received the Efficiency Decoration in 1946. Belisario engendered a spirit of camaraderie in each of the units he commanded. For many years after the war his Macquarie Street consulting rooms were a meeting-place for old comrades on Anzac Day.

Throughout his life Belisario strove to promote dermatology as an academic discipline. At the University of Sydney he was lecturer (1945-61) in diseases of the skin, and the instigator and first supervisor (1946-56) of a training course leading to the diploma of dermatological medicine. Although he did not succeed in his ultimate objective of persuading the university to found a chair of dermatology, the position was created after his death: the first incumbent established his office in the John Belisario Institute of Dermatology which had been created at R.P.A.H. in 1959 on Belisario's initiative. Foundation president of the Dermatological Association of Australia in 1949 and of its successor, the Australasian College of Dermatologists, in 1966, Belisario was elected a fellow (1959) of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and was appointed C.M.G. in 1968.

Belisario was 5 ft 11 ins (180 cm) tall and imposing, with a cheerful disposition and a seemingly perpetual smile. His enthusiasm for all he undertook and his generosity in helping others mitigated his apparent fondness of publicity. He regularly attended St Mark's Anglican Church, Darling Point, and belonged to the Union, Royal Sydney Golf and American National clubs, but his family and dermatology were his life. The sudden death of his wife in 1974 devastated him and much of his old drive left him. Survived by his two daughters, he died on 3 August 1976 in the Sacred Heart Hospice, Darlinghurst, and was cremated. A portrait by Vaire Lubus is held by the Australasian College of Dermatologists.

Select Bibliography

  • A. S. Walker, Clinical Problems of War (Canb, 1952)
  • A. S. Walker, Middle East and Far East (Canb, 1953)
  • A. S. Walker, The Island Campaigns (Canb, 1957)
  • I. Brodziak (ed), Proudly We Served (Syd, 1988)
  • Australian Journal of Dermatology, 17, 1976, p 127
  • Belisario file (Royal Australasian College of Physicians Archives, Sydney)
  • Belisario papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

G. L. McDonald, 'Belisario, John Colquhoun (1900–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/belisario-john-colquhoun-9476/text16671, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 21 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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