Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Jones, William Ernest (1867–1957)

by S. G. Foster

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

William Ernest Jones (1867-1957), psychiatrist, was born on 14 July 1867 at Upper Gornal, Dudley, Staffordshire, England, son of Alfred Jones, surgeon, and his wife Caroline Maria, née Noott. Supported by a Clothworkers' medical scholarship, he attended Epsom College, and then Middlesex Hospital (M.R.C.S. (Eng), L.R.C.P. (Lond), 1890). Early in his career he was attracted to the study of lunacy, partly through interest and partly because by remaining in asylums he could avoid the high cost of buying into private practice. A series of appointments culminated in his becoming medical superintendent of the new Brecon and Rodnor County Asylum in Wales.

In 1905 Ernest Jones was appointed inspector-general of the insane in Victoria. Notwithstanding later suggestions that he was selected through confusion with his namesake, the friend and biographer of Freud, he owed his position to references which highly commended his energy and administrative skills, and to a successful interview with the former Victorian premier (Sir) William Irvine. The initial appointment was for five years: in the event he held office until 1937.

Soon after his arrival in Melbourne, Jones visited the six Victorian asylums. In a report to cabinet he criticized severe overcrowding, inadequate staffing and outmoded attitudes, and recommended building improvements totalling £250,000. His early achievements included construction of a modern asylum at Mont Park and amendment of the Lunacy Act to allow the admission of patients at their own request. After wartime service within Australia as an honorary lieutenant-colonel in the Australian Army Medical Corps, he chaired a 1921 commission of inquiry into lunacy in Western Australia. In 1933 he advised the Tasmanian government on the rebuilding of New Norfolk Asylum and, following his retirement, he acted briefly as inspector-general of the insane in Western Australia. Jones remained active during World War II, medically examining recruits and servicemen about to be discharged, and in 1947, aged 80, chaired a government inquiry into his old department. He was appointed C.M.G. in 1935.

For Jones, the psychiatrist was 'the apostle of common sense', whose proper concerns ranged from the imbecile and psychopath to the delinquent and degenerate. In 1929 he conducted a Federal government inquiry into the mentally deficient, which concluded that a little under 3 per cent of the Australian population fell into this category. Jones saw this as a grave threat to national efficiency and advocated eugenic ideals as a remedy, partly through the Council of Mental Hygiene which he helped to establish. At his instigation, the name of the Lunacy Department was changed to the Department of Mental Hygiene, and his own title altered to director of mental hygiene. Although he rejected as impractical compulsory sterilization and doubted whether society would act to prevent the mentally defective from marrying, he proposed eugenic research and urged the 'inculcation of good hygiene in our matings'.

A man of strong opinions, Jones disliked the 'yellow press', 'professional philanthropists' and 'self-appointed guardians of Public Liberty', and was contemptuous of various non Anglo-Saxon races, especially 'low class Roman Catholic Irish' in whom he detected an 'inherent lunacy'. On 1 November 1905 at St Patrick's Cathedral, he had married Kathleen Mary Mahony with whom he lived in 'almost cloudless harmony' until her death in 1952. Of medium height and slight build, bespectacled and well-groomed, he was at home at the Melbourne Club and Sandringham golf links. Jones died, sane but cantankerous about the moral deterioration of the world, on 1 May 1957, and was cremated. His son and daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Medical Journal of Australia, Feb 1939, 13 July 1957
  • Punch (Melbourne), 18 Jan 1917
  • Herald (Melbourne), 7-11 Sept 1936
  • Canberra Times, 7 Mar 1934
  • W. E. Jones papers and diaries (Charles Brothers Museum, Parkville, Vic).

Citation details

S. G. Foster, 'Jones, William Ernest (1867–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/jones-william-ernest-6882/text11929, published in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 23 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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