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Butler, Arthur Graham (1872–1949)

by C. M. Gurner

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

Arthur Graham Butler (1872-1949), physician and medical historian, was born on 25 May 1872 at Kilcoy, Queensland, son of William Butler, station-manager, and his wife June, née Graham, both English-born. After attending Ipswich Grammar School, he studied medicine at St John's College, Cambridge (B.A., 1894; B.C., 1897; M.B., 1899); he rowed for Cambridge, was an outstanding middle-distance runner, and warmly sympathized with the labour movement. On returning to Queensland he went into general practice at Kilcoy, then in 1902-07 at Gladstone. On 2 February 1904 at St Paul's Anglican Church, Burwood, New South Wales, he married Lilian Kate Mills. He left Gladstone in 1907 to do twelve months postgraduate work at the University of Sydney, then went into practice in Wickham Terrace, Brisbane, specializing in gynaecology and obstetrics. In 1912-14 he was honorary secretary of the Queensland branch of the British Medical Association.

In 1912 Graham Butler joined the Australian Army Medical Corps and became medical officer of the Moreton Regiment. He enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force as a captain on 20 August 1914 and was appointed regimental medical officer of the 9th Battalion which sailed for Egypt in September. Officers and men were inclined to regard his wise precautions as over-careful, even finicky, and he was soon affectionately known as 'Gertie'. Butler was in one of the first boats ashore at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915; he climbed the cliffs with the leading wave and set up his aid-post between 400 Plateau and Bolton's Ridge. One of his men later recalled 'from the time that he stepped out on the beach dressed like a veritable Christmas tree … until several days afterwards when he was on the point of collapse from sheer exhaustion … his energy, bravery and devotion to duty were an inspiration to all'. He was the only medical officer to win the Distinguished Service Order at Anzac, where he remained until October.

In February 1916 Butler, who had been promoted major the previous September, was appointed deputy assistant director of medical services, I Anzac Corps. He reached France in April. A medical colleague later described him as 'a most efficient D.A.D.M.S. … enthusiastic in his work, quiet in manner and a very brave gentleman'. In November 1916 he was promoted lieutenant-colonel and next February was given command of the 3rd Field Ambulance. At Bullecourt his unit was in the forward area as the 1st Division's main dressing station, then after two months at Buire served in Flanders, taking over the advanced dressing station on the Menin Road on 15 September. In characteristic fashion Butler turned his hand to any task that required attention. 'Gertie was everything in the unit, from C.O. to sanitary fatigue', one of his men remarked. He was mentioned in dispatches twice in 1917.

After the 3rd battle of Ypres Butler was sent to London to help collate the medical records of the A.I.F. He left the front reluctantly but was to return often to spend hours with unit commanders, instructing them in the compilation of war diaries and medical records. From July 1918 he became commander of the 3rd Australian General Hospital at Abbeville until it closed in June 1919. Before returning home he spent another six months at the war records section, A.I.F. headquarters, London. Two brothers and a sister had also served in the A.I.F.

Demobilized in February 1920, Butler resumed private practice in Brisbane and that year was State president of the B.M.A. In 1923, 'against his wish, but from a sense of public duty', he agreed to write the official history of the Australian Army Medical Services in the war; the task was to occupy the next twenty years of his life. He gave up his practice and moved to Canberra where he became medical officer of the Royal Military College in 1927-30 and of the Federal Capital Territory in 1928-31. The three volumes were published in 1930, 1940 and 1943; Butler wrote them all, except part of the first. Towards the end of his task he was troubled by partial blindness. His literary work displays the qualities that he showed on the battlefield: courage, compassion and meticulousness. He sought to isolate and analyse important problems as a guide to future policy and management. His arguments are trenchant, his scholarship exact and penetrating. His wide-ranging, critical statistical appendices are especially valuable and shocking in their implications. His three volumes are among the most distinguished war history texts of the English-speaking nations.

Butler was an active member of St John the Baptist's Anglican Church, the Canberra Horticultural Society and local ex-servicemen's associations. Always a keen rose-grower, he had been joint author of National Roses of Canberra in 1933. His final publication in 1945 was The Digger: A Study in Democracy. Survived by his wife and daughter, he died of hypertensive cerebral vascular disease at Canberra on 27 February 1949 and was buried in the churchyard at St John's. A colleague once said of Butler: 'he was everything that gentle upbringing, the highest education, Christian philosophy, unbounded comradeliness, fearless integrity, the zeal of an idealist, and boyish humour and enjoyment of life could make a man'. His portrait by John Longstaff, hangs in the Australian War Memorial.

Select Bibliography

  • C. E. W. Bean, The Story of Anzac, vol 1 (Syd, 1921)
  • London Gazette, 1 June, 3 Aug 1915, 2 Feb, 25 Dec 1917
  • Reveille (Sydney), Oct, Nov 1930, Mar 1935, Feb 1937, Mar 1940
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 27 Apr 1940, 8 Oct 1949
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 3 July 1943, 28 Feb 1949
  • Canberra Times, 27 Feb 1949, 4 June 1951, 14 June 1959
  • A. G. Butler diary and papers (Australian War Memorial)
  • family papers (privately held)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

C. M. Gurner, 'Butler, Arthur Graham (1872–1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/butler-arthur-graham-5444/text9243, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 18 November 2018.

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

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