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Coppleson, Sir Victor Marcus (1893–1965)

by Ann M. Mitchell

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Sir Victor Marcus Coppleson (1893-1965), surgeon, was born on 27 February 1893 in Sydney, eldest of five surviving children of Albert Abram Coppleson (1864?-1948) and his wife. Albert was born at Mitava, Courland, Russia (Yelgava, Latvia), son of David Coppleson, miller, and his wife Nessa née Michael. After the pogroms of 1881 he migrated, going to London, New Zealand and Victoria. In 1884 he moved on to New South Wales and became an itinerant hawker in the north-west. About 1890, with W. R. Cohen, a Polish Jew whom he had met in London, he opened a general store at Wee Waa. He was naturalized on 31 March 1891 and on 9 February 1893 at the Redfern Registry Office, married a widow Sarah (Siba) Middlemass, née Sloman, also of Russian émigré stock. By 1900 he was in business on his own.

In November 1893 Coppleson had given evidence on the route of the proposed Narrabri-Moree railway to the sectional committee of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works. From its proclamation in 1906, he served on the Namoi Shire Council for nearly thirty years, for thirteen of them either as president or deputy president. In 1911 he first advocated a major dam on the Namoi River and never lost his enthusiasm for the project. His contemporaries expected that its completion would be a fitting monument to his devotion but, at the 1960 opening of the Keepit Dam, his name was not mentioned. In 1919 he resigned from the council in protest against the transfer of the shire offices from Wee Waa to Narrabri. He was re-elected in 1922. He and his wife worked hard for the local hospital, of which he was a trustee and both were life members.

Coppleson suffered severe financial losses in the Depression through extending credit to many customers. When he retired to Sydney in 1936 he was presented with a testimonial and a purse. An acknowledged Talmudic scholar, he was also an unacknowledged Yiddish poet. A Freemason, he died aged 83 at his Bellevue Hill home on 24 January 1948 and was buried in the Jewish section of Rookwood cemetery. He was survived by his wife, three sons and two daughters.

Victor was educated at the Wee Waa Public School, Sydney Grammar School and St Andrews College, University of Sydney (M.B., Ch.M., 1915). In November 1915 he joined the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force to New Guinea. In March 1916 as a captain he sailed for the Middle East and in June went to France with the 15th Field Ambulance. He had several spells as regimental medical officer in France and Belgium and on 12 May 1917 was wounded at Bullecourt. From August until July 1918 he was officer commanding the 5th Sanitary Section and was promoted major on 28 February 1918. Working as a house surgeon at St George's Hospital, London, from April 1919, he was demobilized in London at the end of the year. He had experience at Westminster and Middlesex hospitals; he became a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1921.

On his return to Sydney in 1922 Coppleson set up in practice in Macquarie Street as a general surgeon. On 3 December 1924 at St James Anglican Church, Sydney, he married Enid Bohrsmann, daughter of Judge Augustus James. Of Coppleson's honorary hospital appointments, St Vincent's was his first love: he was on its surgical staff from 1923 (consultant from 1953); in 1926-53 he lectured there in clinical surgery and in 1928 edited its Clinical Handbook for Residents, Nurses and Students (revised in 1936 and 1946). He was also an honorary surgeon at Royal North Shore Hospital in 1928-44 (consultant from 1954); a member of the boards of Prince Henry Hospital in 1938-40 and 1948-63 and the Benevolent Society of New South Wales in 1961-65; part-time lecturer in surgical anatomy at the university in 1923-34 and an honorary curator of its anatomy museum in 1923-56; and was a State committee-member of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons in 1940-60 (a fellow from 1928). His general scientific interests led him to join the Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales and the Australian Marine Sciences Association; he was also a fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine, London, and a member of other international organizations.

A prodigious worker, Coppleson was Australian correspondent to the Lancet (London) in the 1930s. He had remained on the reserve of officers, and in January 1941, as a lieutenant-colonel, he arrived in the Middle East. In April-May he served in Greece and returned to Sydney in 2/1 Australian Hospital Ship. He was a special visiting senior surgeon to the 113th Australian General Hospital, Concord. From 1926 he had been an honorary medical adviser to the Surf Life Saving Association of Australia and wrote several articles on the shark peril before publishing Shark Attack in 1958 (revised in 1962, 1968 and 1976): the book brought him world recognition. With Judge Adrian Curlewis he helped organize the first International Convention on Life Saving Techniques, held in Sydney in 1960: as a result mouth-to-mouth resuscitation was universally adopted.

Coppleson's support of postgraduate medical education dominated all his other activities. From 1932 he was a member of the New South Wales Permanent Post-Graduate Committee, which had been prompted by the British Medical Association. It was reconstituted in the university in 1935 as the New South Wales Post-Graduate Committee in Medicine and in 1945 as the Postgraduate Committee in Medicine of the University of Sydney. Coppleson was honorary secretary in 1935-55, chairman in 1956-64 and director of postgraduate studies in 1948-65. Despite his strenuous efforts the postgraduate school at Prince Henry Hospital, started in 1938, was never resumed after its breakdown in 1942. He wanted to promote further studies among general practitioners as well as specialists and to provide grants to send Australians abroad and bring distinguished visitors to the country. Under his skilful guidance the Post Graduate Medical Foundation, set up in 1958 to put fund-raising on a systematic basis, was an immediate success. With justifiable pride, he said in 1962 that by stimulating research the foundation had raised Sydney's lagging medical standards until they were equal to those anywhere. He was knighted in January 1964.

Younger colleagues were occasionally frightened by Coppleson's authoritarianism, but even in those 'irritated by his vigorous personality and methods, he tended to inspire a curious affection'. A large man, balding in his later years, he had 'a wonderful physique', was an excellent swimmer and enjoyed golf. He was a member of the University, Imperial Service and Australian Golf clubs. He collected stamps but was better known as a successful gardener and for his collection of orchids. His wife's support made his incessant activities possible.

Sir Victor died of cancer at his home at Wunulla Road, Point Piper, on 12 May 1965, and was cremated after a service at St Mark's Anglican Church, Darling Point; (he had become an Anglican while at school). He was survived by his wife, son and daughter, to whom he left his estate, valued for probate at £19,016. His wife gave money from the sale of his orchids to the fund for the Victor Coppleson Memorial Institute of Post-graduate Studies, at the University of Sydney, opened in February 1978.

Select Bibliography

  • W. J. Mulholland, Narrabri Jubilee Celebrations, Back-to-Narrabri Week, Sept. 4th-10th, 1933 (Newcastle, 1933)
  • D. Miller, Earlier Days (Syd, 1969)
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 23 Oct 1965
  • Australian Jewish Historical Society, Journal, 2 (1947-48), no 7, 9, vol 7 (1971-74) no 4
  • Australian Zoologist, 10 Aug 1965
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 26 Sept 1911, 26 Jan 1948, 5 Nov 1955, 14 June 1958, 5 Feb, 19 Mar 1959, 1 July, 29 Oct 1960, 27 Jan 1961, 25 Oct 1962, 13 May 1965
  • North Western Courier, 4 Sept 1933, 12 Feb 1948, 27, 31 Oct 1960
  • Namoi Shire Council Minute-books (Narrabri, NSW)
  • Annual reports, Prince Henry Hospital, and Royal North Shore Hospital, and Surf Life Saving Association of Australia (Sydney)
  • Royal Australasian College of Surgeons Archives (Melbourne)
  • University of Sydney Archives
  • private information.

Citation details

Ann M. Mitchell, 'Coppleson, Sir Victor Marcus (1893–1965)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/coppleson-sir-victor-marcus-5776/text9793, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 23 November 2017.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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