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Cowlishaw, Leslie (1877–1943)

by Edward Ford

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

Leslie Cowlishaw (1877-1943), physician, medical historian and bibliophile, was born on 4 January 1877 in Sydney, eldest son of native-born parents Mahlon Clarke Cowlishaw, shipping merchant, and his wife Jane, née Gratton. He was educated at Sydney Grammar School and the University of Sydney (M.B., Ch.M., 1906); a 'delightful batsman' he captained his school first eleven and in 1903 won a cricket blue at the university. His early interest in history and books was nurtured by several visits to Britain and Europe with his family—in 1906-08 he collected early medical works throughout Europe, and laid an imposing foundation for his library. On his return to New South Wales in 1908 he settled in general practice at Cooma and there on 11 August 1909 he married Jessie Rose Ann Garnock, daughter of a grazier.

Commissioned captain in the Australian Imperial Force in March 1915, Cowlishaw was attached to the 12th Light Horse Regiment in June and served briefly at Gallipoli. He was invalided to England from Lemnos in October; from January to May 1916 he was officer-in-charge of invaliding in London, where he met leaders in medical history, notably Sir William Osler, who gave him help and encouragement, books, and the lasting title of 'the bibliophile from the bush!' After a voyage to Australia on transport duty he was promoted major in December and in 1917 served in France with the Australian Field Ambulance and at Rouelles and Etaples. His A.I.F. appointment ended in December 1917 and he returned to Sydney.

In 1918 Cowlishaw set up in practice at Hornsby, moving next year to Lindfield, where he worked as a family doctor for the rest of his life. His collecting and study continued; his publications were mainly in the Medical Journal of Australia. Sought after as a lecturer and widely recognized as a historian, he strove tirelessly to advance both professional and academic appreciation of his subject. In 1925 he was chief sponsor of a section on medical history and literature of the local branch of the British Medical Association, and of a similar group at the Australasian Medical Congress in 1929. From 1931 he was an honorary lecturer in medical history at the University of Sydney and consistently pressed for improved library facilities and organized teaching of the subject.

Cowlishaw was 'a friendly, courtly man' of wide culture, and an able physician revered by his patients. In 1939, after examination, he became a member of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians. He was a fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine, London, and an active member of the Returned Sailors' and Soldiers' Imperial League of Australia and of the medical committee of the Legacy Club of Sydney. The later years of his otherwise happy life were clouded by the loss, in a car accident, of his only child David, aged 20. Survived by his wife, he died of heart disease at Lindfield on 11 December 1943 and was cremated with Anglican rites. His library, rich in rare medical and surgical classics, is the most important of its kind in Australia; it now forms the Cowlishaw collection in the library of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons.

Select Bibliography

  • K. F. Russell, ‘Historical collections … of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons’, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Surgery, 36 (1966)
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 5 Feb 1944, and E. Ford, ‘Three Australian medical historians …’, Medical Journal of Australia, 18 Nov 1967.

Citation details

Edward Ford, 'Cowlishaw, Leslie (1877–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cowlishaw-leslie-5796/text9835, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 15 November 2018.

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

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