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Harvey, William Cotter Burnell (1897–1981)

by Robert A. B. Holland

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

William Cotter Burnell Harvey (1897-1981), thoracic physician and anti-smoking crusader, was born on 24 September 1897 at Grenfell, New South Wales, eldest of three children of Irish-born Lucius Watson Harvey, medical practitioner, and his Sydney-born wife Hilda Gray, née Leibius. Lucius Harvey later established a practice at Manly. While Cotter was at Sydney Grammar School, Lucius was diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis, which had also affected some of his family in Ireland. He went into semi-retirement at Leura. At the University of Sydney (MB, Ch.M., 1920), Harvey lived in St Paul’s College. He became a resident medical officer at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney. His father travelled to Geneva in 1921 for tuberculin treatment but, following a lung haemorrhage, died in his hotel. Harvey later said that family experience had caused him to direct his professional life to the treatment of tuberculosis.

After his residency Harvey went to Britain and Europe, where he worked at the Hospital for Consumption and Chest Diseases, Brompton, London, and at a sanatorium in Switzerland. In 1923 he gained a diploma in tuberculosis diseases from the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire, University of Wales, a rare qualification for an Australian. Returning to Sydney he married Laura Hingst (d.1977) on 2 February 1924 at St James’s Church of England, Sydney. He was appointed in 1924 as a physician for pulmonary diseases at Royal North Shore Hospital and next year as an honorary assistant physician at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. At the North Shore he took over the tuberculosis outpatients’ clinic and fought hard for a separate chest unit with its own building. This came in 1941, with a larger one in 1949. Surgical colleagues were appointed and a postgraduate course in thoracic nursing was introduced.

Harvey had enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 27 June 1918 but was not called up for service. In January 1941 he was appointed as a lieutenant colonel in the Australian Army Medical Corps, AIF. Next month he sailed for Malaya as senior physician with the 2/10th Australian General Hospital. Captured when the Japanese took Singapore in February 1942, he treated patients, including some with tuberculosis, at Changi and Kranji, strove to improve the prisoners’ diet and presided over the Changi Medical Society. For his work he was mentioned in despatches. He developed beriberi and diphtheritic polyneuropathy, which threatened his life. After his release in August 1945, he returned to Sydney, where he was transferred to the Reserve of Officers in December.

Moving away from general medicine, Harvey became head of the thoracic unit at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, which from 1957 was housed in the Page Chest Pavilion. His work in tuberculosis management was helped by the appointment of his friend (Sir) Harry Wunderly as the first Commonwealth director of tuberculosis in 1947; they corresponded frequently. Harvey worked long hours at the RPAH and the North Shore and at his consulting rooms in Macquarie Street, and regularly visited sanatoriums in Sydney, Picton and the Blue Mountains. He was highly regarded by the nursing staff and by his patients, most of whom were necessarily long-term. Although he retired from the honorary staff of both hospitals in 1957 aged 60, he continued in private practice until 1975. With improved tuberculosis detection and the advent of chemotherapy, he saw a significant reduction in the incidence and severity of this disease.

Harvey published a number of papers on tuberculosis and participated with colleagues on surveys in Sydney and Singapore relating to the incidence of the disease. He was a member of the National Health and Medical Research Council’s tuberculosis committee (1945-50) and the National Tuberculosis Advisory Council (1949-70), and was president of the National Association for the Prevention of Tuberculosis and Other Chest Diseases (later National Tuberculosis and Chest Association) (1961-66). With colleagues he founded the eastern regional committee of the International Union Against Tuberculosis (of whose parent body he had been a member since the early 1920s) and served as president. In 1952 he was a founder of the Australian Laennec Society, the forerunner of the Thoracic Society of Australia and New Zealand. A member (1940-67) and president (1955-67) of the Medical Board of New South Wales, he was the first president of the General Medical Council of Australia from 1963.

Concerned by the growing incidence of carcinoma of the lung, Harvey led the campaign against tobacco smoking. In 1965 he urged the founding of the Australian Council on Smoking and Health. He incurred some unpopularity, particularly with the tobacco companies, who continued to deny that there was a causal link between smoking and disease. He visited schools and sporting bodies, regularly wrote to the press, and persuaded other medical organisations and colleagues to join the campaign. One specific achievement was the banning of cigarette vending machines in hospitals. When progress seemed slow, he persisted, saying that he had great faith in `the inevitability of gradualness’. Much of the change in the attitudes of Australians to smoking can be attributed to Harvey and those whom he mobilised.

A foundation fellow (1938) of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, Harvey served (1954-58) on its State committee. He was appointed CBE in 1965 and awarded the Sir Robert Philip medal of the Chest and Heart Association (England) in 1967. Tall, lean, of patrician appearance, and proud of his Irish Protestant heritage, he moved and talked quickly with an air of energy and authority. He belonged to the Union, University and Royal Sydney Golf clubs. A keen gardener and surfer, he played tennis and golf, and bowls in later years. He died on 17 October 1981 at his home at Bellevue Hill and, after a funeral service in St Paul’s College chapel, was cremated. His three sons and two daughters survived him. The Australian War Memorial holds a pencil drawing (1943) of Harvey by Murray Griffin.

Select Bibliography

  • A. S. Walker, Middle East and Far East (1953)
  • A. J. Proust (ed), History of Tuberculosis in Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea (1991)
  • J. C. Wiseman and R. J. Mulhearn (eds), Roll of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, vol 2 (1994)
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 21 Aug 1965, p 338
  • Sydney Morning Hearld, 18 June 1969, p 4, 19 Oct 1981, p 8, 5 Nov 1981, p 6
  • series B2455, Harvey, W C B, B883, item NX70668 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Harvey war diary (Australian War Memorial)
  • Harvey papers (Royal Australasian College of Physicians Library, Sydney)
  • private information.

Citation details

Robert A. B. Holland, 'Harvey, William Cotter Burnell (1897–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/harvey-william-cotter-burnell-12604/text22703, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 17 October 2018.

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

View the front pages for Volume 17

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