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Kelsall, George Arthur (1905–1994)

by Lenore Layman

This article was published online in 2019

George Arthur Kelsall (1905–1994), haematologist, was born on 21 August 1905 in Perth, fourth child of Indian-born Henry Truman Kelsall, ophthalmic surgeon and later stud sheep breeder, and his Western Australian-born wife Blanche Edith, née Leake. On leaving Guildford Grammar School, where he boarded from 1917 to 1923, George planned a farming life and studied farm trades, before travelling to Bradford, England, in 1927 to learn wool-classing. Returning to Perth during the Depression, he could not find employment and decided to set up the wool-broking firm Kelsall, Oliver & Co. Ltd, registered in October 1931. He married Gertrude Monteith (Monte) Rolland, a sports mistress, at St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Perth, on 19 January 1932. His father’s death later that year left him with a bequest sufficient to pursue medical studies at the University of Edinburgh (MB, ChB, 1937). He returned in October 1937 to work as a resident medical officer at (Royal) Perth Hospital before setting up in general practice in West Perth.

During World War II Kelsall served in Perth as a captain in the Australian Army Medical Corps, Citizen Military Forces. He began full-time duty in December 1942 and volunteered for the Australian Imperial Force but was transferred to the Reserve of Officers in July 1943. Resuming his practice, he became acting director of the Western Australian Red Cross Blood Transfusion Service (1943–45). In that capacity he organised wartime blood supplies for the defence forces and civilian population, extending the work of Cyril Fortune who had established the service. Under Kelsall it grew rapidly and its technologies advanced.

In 1943 Kelsall became visiting haematologist at Perth Children’s Hospital, and the same year accepted an honorary position as resuscitation officer at (Royal) Perth Hospital with responsibilities for the blood bank, blood transfusion, and the burns unit. He was awarded a research fellowship at the University of Sydney in 1949 and studied eclampsia and the toxaemias of pregnancy with Bruce Mayes, before returning to Perth to commence a specialist practice in haematology in 1952. Throughout this period he had been honorary haematologist at King Edward Memorial Hospital for Women (KEMH), and it was in this capacity that he made his mark.

Kelsall’s developing specialisation drew him into pioneering research on blood transfusion, chiefly on the newly discovered rhesus factor that could lead to the delivery of ‘blue babies’ who did not survive. This wartime work saw the development of rhesus antisera utilising bloods from monkeys at Perth Zoo. His research on haemolytic disease of the newborn (Erythroblastosis fetalis), combining clinical observation with laboratory work, was first published in the Medical Journal of Australia in 1944 and 1945, and continued after the war at KEMH in collaboration with a technical assistant, Gerard Vos. Together, between 1952 and 1962, they published at least eleven cited papers on the subject that was then engaging major international research interest.

Using the antisera he had developed, Kelsall monitored at-risk pregnant women and on 18 December 1945 at KEMH performed the first blood replacement transfusion for rhesus incompatibility in a newborn in Australia. The exchange transfusion occurred at delivery directly from the donor into the umbilical vein of the newborn, known at the time only as Marilyn, whose own blood was simultaneously drained away. The whole procedure took less than ten minutes. The donor, Max Praed, was a Sunday Times journalist and publicised the story in so far as he could, but the parents asked for privacy and Kelsall could not be named, in line with medical convention at the time. Exchange transfusions in newborns had begun earlier in 1945 in the United States of America, but the treatment was still experimental and did not begin to find its way into the international literature until 1946. Even then, because of privacy concerns surrounding Marilyn’s case, Kelsall did not report his path-breaking achievement in the scientific literature, nor was he named in the limited local publicity.

Between 1950 and 1965, when Kelsall retired from KEMH, he handled 1,229 cases and performed 806 exchange transfusions with mostly positive and improving outcomes, giving the hospital’s haematology department an international reputation. He continued his work on rhesus incompatibility and retained his honorary hospital positions and his haematology practice until 1980. A colleague described him as a man ‘of gentle and pleasant demeanour who mixed easily’ (Barter 1994, 10). His family, gardening, working in his home workshop, and acting as a medical referee for permits to cremate, occupied his retirement. He died on 21 August 1994 at Dalkeith, Perth, and was cremated; his wife and three sons survived him.

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Barter, Robert. ‘Medic Made Transfusion History.’ Australian, 1 September 1994, 10
  • Kelsall, David. Personal communication
  • Kelsall, G. A. A Lecture Delivered on 12 August 1965. Subiaco, WA: King Edward Memorial Hospital for Women, 1965
  • Kelsall, George. Interview by Patricia Barrett-Lennard, 23 April 1983. Sound recording. Australia 1938 Oral History Project. National Library of Australia
  • Kelsall, Robert. Personal communication
  • Pearn, John H. ‘Erythroblastosis Fetalis—the Discovery and Partial Elimination of Rhesus Incompatibility—the Origins of Exchange Transfusion in Australia.’ Pathology 26 (1994): 176–82

Additional Resources

Citation details

Lenore Layman, 'Kelsall, George Arthur (1905–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kelsall-george-arthur-27747/text35444, published online 2019, accessed online 14 November 2019.

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