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Crowther, Sir William Edward Lodewyk Hamilton (1887–1981)

by C. A von Oppeln

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Sir William Edward Lodewyk Hamilton Crowther (1887-1981), medical practitioner, collector and bibliophile, was born on 9 May 1887 in Hobart, second of six children of Edward Lodewyk Crowther, surgeon, and his second wife Emily Ida, née Hamilton. William Lodewyk Crowther and John Hamilton were William’s grandfathers. He was educated at Buckland’s and The Hutchins schools, Hobart, and Ormond College, University of Melbourne (MB, BS, 1910). In 1911 he sailed as a ship’s doctor to London to further his medical training at Bolingbroke Hospital. Much to his regret this phase was cut short when he was called home because his mother was seriously ill. He became junior house surgeon at Hobart Public Hospital and joined the Australian Army Medical Corps in 1913.

Formidable in both physique and personality, Crowther transferred to the Australian Imperial Force on 26 March 1915. On 17 March, shortly before leaving on active service, he had married with Anglican rites Joyce Nevett Mitchell (d.1965) at St David’s Cathedral, Hobart. He spent a month on Gallipoli with the 7th Field Ambulance before being evacuated sick in October. By December 1915, convalescent in Italy, he was enjoying visits to Rome, Florence and Siena, broadening his education. On the Western Front from April 1916, he served successively with the 8th FA, the 1st Casualty Clearing Station and the 14th FA, showing leadership and determination in adversity and a talent for organisation. In October 1917 he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and placed in command of the 5th FA. He was mentioned in despatches and awarded the Distinguished Service Order (1918). Always modest and reticent about his war experiences, he returned to Tasmania with a fine reputation and a profound respect for the Australian soldier. His AIF appointment was terminated on 9 April 1919.

Back in Hobart, Crowther worked as deputy quarantine officer in a community confronting a severe influenza epidemic. He then entered into a general and obstetrics practice and held long-time honorary positions at (Royal) Hobart and Queen Alexandra hospitals. Kind, compassionate and practical, he inspired confidence, loyalty and affection in both patients and staff. He was medical adviser (1933-45) to the governor Sir Ernest Clark. He served on the Hobart Public Hospitals District Board (1943-46), and the Millbrook Rise Hospital (1934-66) and Midwives Registration boards. A fellow (1946) of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, he was president of the Tasmanian branch of the British Medical Association (1934-35, 1942-43) and of the Medical Council of Tasmania (1952-54). In 1955 he was appointed CBE.

Keen on natural history from boyhood, Crowther was chairman (1924-28) of the Tasmanian Field Naturalists’ Club and an enthusiastic member of the Royal Australasian Ornithologists’ Union. He had joined the Royal Society of Tasmania in 1911; on the council (1919-58) he was closely involved in its campaign to establish a wildlife sanctuary on Macquarie Island in 1933. The society awarded him its medal in 1940 and elected him a life member in 1962. Crowther was a trustee (1919-73) of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.

Anthropology was another of his many interests. The shame and notoriety brought to the family in 1869 when his grandfather had mutilated the body of an Aborigine, William Lanney, did not deter him from conducting his own research: as a medical student in 1908, he had helped to remove Aboriginal remains from Oyster Cove. Twenty years of holidays spent investigating Aboriginal camp-sites throughout Tasmania resulted in a series of papers published (1921-50) in Papers and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Tasmania. In 1933 in Canberra he delivered the Halford oration on `The Passing of the Tasmanian Race’. Predicting damage to Australia’s reputation if Aboriginal people were not treated with more compassion and respect, he recommended a national approach to their welfare, to be administered by culturally sensitive officials trained in anthropology. He believed that tribes on their lands should be as autonomous as possible and that it would be a tragedy if the Tasmanian experience were to be repeated elsewhere in Australia. In 1963 he donated his family’s collection of Aboriginal skeletal remains to the Tasmanian Museum.

Although Crowther’s scientific, professional and community interests ebbed and flowed over time, his passion for Tasmanian history was always at the centre of his intellectual life. From the 1920s he collected books and manuscripts, artwork and artefacts, shipping logs, photographs and other historical documents. Tenacious and determined in the pursuit of a rarity, he nevertheless retained the respect of other competitors in the field. He was modest about his own collection and generous in his praise and encouragement of others. His early focus on Tasmania broadened into an emphasis on Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific. The subjects covered included medical and maritime history, anthropology, natural history and Antarctic exploration. His particular interest was the history of the Tasmanian whaling industry. Fired as usual by a family connection (his grandfather W. L. Crowther owned whaling ships), he had had the foresight in the 1920s to save every record he could find. He was founding chairman (1956-69) of the Van Diemen’s Land Memorial Folk Museum (from 1998 the Narryna Heritage Museum).

In 1964 Crowther began handing over his collection, eventually to comprise some 15,000 items, to the State Library of Tasmania. That year he was knighted. He supported the public campaigns to protect the wilderness in southwest Tasmania and to halt woodchipping. All his life he lived up to his family’s motto: Carpe diem (seize the day). In old age he continued to write prescriptions for long-standing patients. Survived by his son, Sir William died on 31 May 1981 in Hobart and was cremated. In 1985 the Crowther collection of Aboriginal remains was cremated at Oyster Cove. The State Library of Tasmania holds portraits of Crowther by Sir William Dargie and Florence Rodway.

Select Bibliography

  • N. Cree, Sir William Crowther (1987)
  • C. von Oppeln, `Sir William Crowther’, in G. Winter (ed), Tasmanian Insights (1992)
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 6 Feb 1982, p 142
  • Saturday Evening Mercury (Hobart), 11 Apr 1964, p 5, 13 June 1981, p 30
  • Mercury (Hobart), 1 June 1981, p2
  • Tasmanian Mail, 7 May 1985, p 4
  • personal knowledge.

Citation details

C. A von Oppeln, 'Crowther, Sir William Edward Lodewyk Hamilton (1887–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/crowther-sir-william-edward-lodewyk-hamilton-12374/text22237, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 20 October 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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