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Halford, George Britton (1824–1910)

by K. F. Russell

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

George Britton Halford (1824-1910), professor, was born on 26 November 1824 at Petworth, Sussex, England, the second son of James Halford, merchant of Haverstock Hill near London, and his wife Nancy, née Gadd. Privately educated, he studied medicine at St George's Hospital, London (M.R.C.S., 1852; L.S.A., 1854), and obtained the M.D. at St Andrews in 1854. He became a member of the Royal College of Physicians in 1859 and a fellow in July 1870 but was never formally admitted. In 1850 he had been house surgeon at the Westminster Hospital and in 1856 senior house surgeon to the Liverpool Royal Infirmary and Lunatic Asylum. He was also honorary surgeon to the Bridgnorth Infirmary and in 1857 physician to the Royal Hospital for Diseases of the Chest, London; he also had a private practice. In October he was appointed lecturer in anatomy at the Grosvenor Place School of Medicine adjoining St George's Hospital. There he investigated the physiology of the action and sounds of the heart in animals, birds and man, a work of first-rate importance.

In 1862 planning for the medical school at the University of Melbourne was well advanced and lectures to first-year students had begun under John Macadam. Professors James Paget and Richard Owen were invited to select a suitable candidate for the first chair of anatomy, physiology and pathology. Assisted by Sir Redmond Barry then in London, they chose Halford who had worked with Owen on the heart and whom Paget described as 'one of the most distinguished experimental physiologists of the day. His name would give distinction to any University'. Halford's appointment was endorsed and he gave up his practice to collect specimens for a museum and books for a library, for which the Council of the University of Melbourne had sent him £500. With his wife and family he left England on 6 September in the Agincourt and arrived at Melbourne on 23 December.

Halford lived at first in a rented house in Madeline Street, Carlton, and until the building for the medical school was completed in May 1864 held his lectures and practical classes in anatomy and physiology in the converted coach-house of his private residence in May 1863. In that year he was admitted M.D. (ad eund.) in the University of Melbourne. The curriculum for the medical course had been prepared by (Sir) Anthony Brownless and the Medical School Committee before Halford arrived. At the professorial board he protested against the poor scientific content of the first year, notably the absence of natural philosophy. For seven years he was the only full-time lecturer in the medical school and the sole lecturer in anatomy for which he was given a demonstrator in 1869. As well as teaching in three rapidly expanding disciplines Halford was examiner in French for matriculation and arts students. In 1871, as president of the professorial board, he fired an early shot in the long battle over the admission of women students by informing the council that he proposed to allow women who passed the relevant examinations to sign the matriculation book. This plan was quickly stopped by the council and women were not admitted to the university until 1880. Halford served on the council of the Royal Society of Victoria in 1864-67 and 1871 and was vice-president in 1868 and 1870.

In 1876 the faculty of medicine was established and took over administration of courses from the Medical School Committee. Halford was elected dean and held office until 1886 and again in 1890-96. In 1880 he went on leave to England for a year to inspect and work in departments of physiology. On his return he presented plans to the council for expansion of the physiology laboratories and division of his chair so that he would be responsible only for physiology; the proposals were accepted and in 1882 Halford became professor of physiology and (Sir) Harry Brookes Allen professor of anatomy. From 3 students in 1862 the school had 180 by 1882 and 240 by 1896.

At 72 Halford applied for extended leave but although appointed for life he had no provision for a pension and was placed on half-pay and given leave. He retired to Inverloch, Gippsland, and his health improved after a visit to England. His place in the university was taken by (Sir) Charles James Martin, who was appointed lecturer and later acting-professor. When Martin resigned in 1903 the council offered to pay Halford his half-salary for life if he resigned the chair. He agreed and William Osborne was appointed professor of physiology. Deductions from both Martin's and Osborne's salaries were made to pay Halford's pension.

Halford arrived in Melbourne with an enviable record as a research worker. Had he remained in England he would have become an international figure. Instead he made a name for himself as a teacher in Melbourne and founded a tradition which was followed by his successors. Certainly he hoped to continue the work on the heart but his teaching burden was too great and the university had no money for research. The high repute of the Melbourne Medical School was made at the expense of his own. His later researches damaged rather than added to his record. In trifling arguments on comparative anatomy he favoured Richard Owen against Thomas Huxley and like many contemporaries disagreed with Charles Darwin. In experiments with snake venom he pursued with fervour the ammonia treatment of snakebite but, although it did not become the universal antidote that he hoped, he was honest enough to declare that his ideas were wrong. Of some thirty papers and pamphlets, his most important were published in London before he came to Melbourne. The best, The Action and Sounds of the Heart; A Physiological Essay (London, 1860), deserves reprinting.

At Hanover Square, London, in 1857 Halford had married Louisa Henrietta, eldest daughter of the late Thomas Millar; they had twelve children. He died at Inverloch on 27 May 1910, survived by his widow, six sons and three daughters. He was buried in the Inverloch cemetery. By then he had been forgotten, and no substantial obituary appeared in the journals. His family established the Halford Oration in his memory in 1928. In 1928-47 the lectures were delivered at the Institute of Anatomy, Canberra, but in 1948 by agreement with the family the fund was transferred to the University of Melbourne and the orations have since been delivered in Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • University of Melbourne Medical School Jubilee (Melb, 1914)
  • W. A. Osborne, ‘George Britton Halford, His Life and Work’, Medical Journal of Australia, Jan 1929
  • R. Stawell, ‘The Foundation of a Medical School and the Progress of Medical Education’, Medical Journal of Australia, 3 Jan 1931, pp 1-8
  • A. L. Kenny, ‘Halford the Man’, Medical Journal of Australia, 1 Feb 1941, pp 129-34
  • Truth (Melbourne), 11 June 1910
  • K. F. Russell, History of the Melbourne Medical School (privately held)
  • Council minutes, Medical School letters and Faculty of Medicine minutes (University of Melbourne Archives).

Citation details

K. F. Russell, 'Halford, George Britton (1824–1910)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/halford-george-britton-3693/text5779, published in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 1 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

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