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Cox, Leonard Bell (1894–1976)

by Arthur Schwieger

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

Leonard Bell Cox (1894-1976), neurologist and art collector, was born on 29 August 1894 at Prahran, Melbourne, fifth child of Victorian-born Rev. Edward Thomas Cox and his wife Isabella, née Bell, from England. Edward was an Anglican clergyman who became a Methodist. Leonard was educated at Wesley College (where he formed a lasting friendship with (Sir) Robert Menzies) and at the University of Melbourne (M.B., B.S., 1916; M.D., 1920). Following a brief residency at (Royal) Melbourne Hospital, on 3 May 1917 he was commissioned captain, Australian Army Medical Corps, Australian Imperial Force. From October 1917 he served on the Western Front, mainly at headquarters, 5th Divisional Engineers, until April 1919 when he took leave in Britain.

Admitted that year as a member of the Royal College of Physicians, Edinburgh, Cox returned to Melbourne where his A.I.F. appointment terminated on 20 December. He took up a position as Beaney scholar in pathology at the university, but illness caused him to retire temporarily and he convalesced at a cottage which his father had built at Olinda. On 23 December 1925 at St Andrew's Anglican Church, Brighton, he married Nancy Compson Trumble.

Struggling to establish a consultant practice in neurology, Cox supplemented his income by working as an anaesthetist. At the same time he pursued his interests in neuropathology and research. In 1932-51 he was honorary part-time lecturer in neurological pathology at the university and in 1937 Stewart lecturer. As honorary neurologist (1934-55) to the Alfred Hospital, he persuaded its authorities to permit the formation of the first department of neurology in Melbourne and by 1936 had encouraged his brother-in-law H. C. Trumble to devote his surgical skills to neurosurgery: their partnership was also the first of its kind in Melbourne.

Throughout his years at the Alfred Hospital, at the Baker Medical Research Institute and at the university, Cox made important contributions to neurological literature. His lectures in the medical faculty were fully attended and students received a synopsis of each lecture. At the bedside, his clinical skills and strength were evident. He was a superb teacher who had the gift of perceiving the problem from the history, and his examination of the patient went straight to the point. To Cox, the basis of clinical medicine came from an understanding of pathology and anatomy. In World War II he was a part-time neurologist with the Royal Australian Air Force and rose to acting wing commander. The initiator and one of eight founding members of the Australian Association of Neurologists, he was its foundation president (1950-62).

Early in life Cox had become a collector. He made his first purchase—a Battersea enamel box bought on a sudden impulse from a second-hand dealer—in 1917 while he was stationed on Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire, England. A fellow officer, a collector of Chinese art, encouraged him to view the Oriental antiquities in the British Museum. Cox continued to collect discriminatingly in Australia after the war. During this period he studied his subject in depth and learned Chinese characters to further his knowledge.

In 1937 the collection of H. W. Kent, which had been assembled in Asia, was presented to the public and became the nucleus of the National Gallery of Victoria's department of Oriental art. Cox later succeeded Kent as honorary curator. Although Chinese art was his major delight, he had also acquired selected prints, etchings, Australian paintings, a collection of rare books, woodcuts by old and modern masters, and samples of English eighteenth and early nineteenth-century cabinet-making. Nothing, however, surpassed his collection of Chinese ceramics, which was held to be the finest private collection in the country and made him internationally known. In 1953 a Rockefeller grant for medical research made possible a world trip on which Cox contacted many notable private collectors. He was a member of a cultural delegation to China in 1956 and next year returned there as leader of a medical delegation, at the request of the Chinese government.

In 1947 Cox had helped to establish the National Gallery Society of Victoria (president 1952). He was chairman of the trustees of the gallery (1957-65) and of the National Gallery and Cultural Centre committee (1957-64). In 1958 he was appointed a member of the Felton bequest committee. When the new gallery was being designed, he partly withdrew from medical practice to devote more time and effort to the detailed planning. In 1970 he published The National Gallery of Victoria 1861 to 1968. For his contribution to culture and to the N.G.V. he was appointed C.M.G. in 1968. The gallery invited him in 1972 to mount a special exhibition of his own collection; the catalogue was entitled Hundred Treasures. Subsequently, the Felton trustees purchased a blue-and-white stem cup in his honour. Following his retirement in June 1965, he regularly attended gallery meetings.

In 1962 Cox had moved with his wife to the family cottage at Olinda, the grounds of which he had further developed by Edna Walling. There, in his glasshouse, he propagated and cultivated rhododendrons and camellias, and gathered rare species. He helped to form the National Rhododendron Garden at Olinda, providing many specimens from his beautiful garden. Survived by his wife and daughter, he died on 24 July 1976 at his home and was buried in Box Hill cemetery. From his estate, sworn for probate at $372,456, he bequeathed books and items of Chinese art to the N.G.V.

Select Bibliography

  • Proceedings of the Australian Association of Neurologists, 12, 1975
  • Medical Journal of Australia, Jan 1977, p 37
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 22 Jan, 8 Feb 1957, 8 June 1968
  • private information.

Citation details

Arthur Schwieger, 'Cox, Leonard Bell (1894–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cox-leonard-bell-9850/text17425, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 29 September 2016.

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

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