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Cowan, Sir Darcy Rivers Warren (1885–1958)

by Philip Woodruff

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

Sir Darcy Rivers Warren Cowan (1885-1958), medical practitioner, was born on 8 August 1885 at Norwood, Adelaide, one of eight children of James Cowan, a merchant from Ireland, and his wife Sarah Ann, née Warren. Darcy attended Prince Alfred College and the University of Adelaide (M.B., B.S., 1908) where he won a triple Blue in lacrosse, football and tennis, and also played cricket. On 19 April 1910 at the Hahndorf home of Alfred von Doussa he married Effie Hewitt Cox with Catholic rites; they were to remain childless. The Cowans were in England at the outbreak of World War I and on 5 November 1914 Darcy was appointed temporary lieutenant in the Royal Army Medical Corps. Returning to South Australia, on 22 May 1916 he joined the Australian Army Medical Corps Reserve as an honorary captain.

In 1924-35 Cowan served as honorary physician to the (Royal) Adelaide Hospital where he became increasingly absorbed with the problem of tuberculosis and concerned with the toll that the disease was taking of young people, particularly those nurses and doctors occupationally exposed to it. Cowan's mission was threefold: prevention, patient care, and convincing his colleagues and government that the matter could and should be successfully tackled. In 1937 he visited the United States of America to investigate methods of control. President (1935-36) of the South Australian branch of the British Medical Association, he became a foundation fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians in 1938.

His constant pressure and forthright statements resulted in the establishment at (Royal) Adelaide Hospital of a chest clinic, with a ward for tuberculous patients, of which Cowan was physician-in-charge (1938-50). In 1943 he criticized one tuberculosis ward in Adelaide for being located next to a dusty coal-dump and with a full view of the hospital mortuary. That year he founded the South Australian Tuberculosis Association, devoted to the welfare of patients, to public education and to the study of the disease. In 1947 in London he emphasized the importance of providing economic and psychological relief for sufferers and for their families. Returning to Adelaide, he introduced the use of Bacillus Calmette-Guérin vaccine which was prepared by Dr Nancy Atkinson. Next year he helped to form the National Association for the Prevention of Tuberculosis in Australia and forged links with kindred societies in Britain and America.

Virtually single-handedly, Cowan founded Bedford Industries, a new factory (opened in 1950 at Panorama, Adelaide) which offered opportunities for the rehabilitation of those afflicted with tuberculosis; it developed into a broad-based enterprise and the main building was named after him. Assisted by Sir Josiah Symon, Cowan had earlier set up Northcote Home, a residence for children whose parents were in hospital with tuberculosis. Although he found the task 'stupendous' and 'almost frightening', he never allowed politicians to forget the tuberculosis issue and maintained his relentless advocacy until the success of the National Campaign Against Tuberculosis was assured. In 1947-57 he assisted the James Brown Memorial Trust which owned and managed Kalyra Sanatorium and Estcourt House, Grange.

Cowan's obsession and his public pronouncements earned him opposition, even occasional enmity, from some professional colleagues, public servants and politicians. Rather belatedly, he was knighted in 1955. Plump, bald and bespectacled, with a benign, quizzical smile, he possessed an equanimity which calmed his patients' fears and showed a concern for their condition which extended beyond the province of medicine.

Despite a busy life, Sir Darcy enjoyed gardening and was an office-holder in the South Australian Lawn Tennis Association; he had helped to organize the Davis Cup challenge rounds at Memorial Drive in 1952 and 1956. He belonged to the Adelaide Club (from 1929) and was a life member of the B.M.A. Survived by his wife, Cowan died on 9 June 1958 at Calvary Hospital, North Adelaide, and was buried in Payneham cemetery. The Australian Laennec Society commemorated him by the Sir Darcy Cowan prize for research into respiratory disease.

Select Bibliography

  • G. L. McDonald (ed), Roll of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, vol 1 (Syd, 1988)
  • A. J. Proust (ed), History of Tuberculosis in Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea (Canb, 1991)
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 2 May 1959
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 20 May 1943, 16 Sept 1946, 12 July 1947, 17 Oct 1969
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 11 July 1947, 9 June 1955, 9 June 1958.

Citation details

Philip Woodruff, 'Cowan, Sir Darcy Rivers Warren (1885–1958)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cowan-sir-darcy-rivers-warren-9845/text17415, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 15 December 2018.

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

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